August 04, 2020

Belfast voters to face big issues at elections

BELFAST – Big-box stores, a new city charter, two City Council positions, five school board seats and the school budget are the issues voters will confront when they go to the polls later this month.

The municipal election will take place Tuesday, June 12, with the polls open from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Although the result of the big-box referendum will be nonbinding, the candidates running for City Council seats from Wards 1 and 2 have agreed to abide by the outcome of the election. The issue has been one of the most hotly discussed in memory and marks the first time in decades that the opinion of the voters is being sought on a zoning proposal.

In the yes-or-no advisory referendum the voters are being asked, “Do you favor big-box stores in excess of 75,000 square feet under land use regulations developed by the city?”

The question is the outgrowth of last year’s council-imposed moratorium against any retail development over 25,000 square feet. In June 2000, representatives of Wal-Mart Stores informed the city that the company had secured an option on a large parcel of land off Route 3 as the future location for a 165,000-square-foot Supercenter.

After deciding that the city’s zoning regulations were not adequate to control major projects such as the one envisioned by Wal-Mart, the council enacted the moratorium and scheduled the referendum for the June 2001 election. In the months since then, the council decided the wording of the referendum question and designated two areas in the city as suitable for big-box stores.

People have lined up on both sides of the issue and the public meetings have been hot and heavy throughout the yearlong debate. Many attending the meetings criticized the council for advocating policies that would slow growth. Others admonished council members for relinquishing necessary controls. The council itself was divided, with many issues either winning favor or going down to defeat by 3-2 votes.

Besides stirring up the passions of the populace, the referendum and big-box issue also helped boost the field of candidates for two open council seats when incumbents Jon Cheston and Mark Riposta chose not to run for another term. Where competition for council seats had been lukewarm in past elections, this year’s contest features three candidates for the Ward 1 seat and two for Ward 2.

In Ward 1, Phil Crosby of Durham Street, Susan Guthrie of Cottage Street and Denis Howard II of Cedar Street are all pursuing the seat.

Although the race was considered close a few weeks ago, it has taken a surprising turn in recent days. Upon concluding that Crosby’s opposition to big-box stores was as fervent as her own, Guthrie announced that she would vote for Crosby and urged her supporters to do the same.

“He represents my point of view of development,” Guthrie stated last week. “That is all I was seeking. He is also someone with maturity, steadfastness and a professional’s background in education, things I find important in the big picture. I sincerely feel Mr. Crosby brings a lot more to the table.”

Guthrie’s decision to suspend campaigning and throw her support to Crosby prompted Denis Howard II to declare himself as a write-in candidate. Howard, development director at community radio station WERU, has indicated his outright opposition to all large retail developments. He announced his write-in candidacy one week ago.

“People don’t want big boxes to cover this city and neither do I,” said Howard. “I don’t know at this late a date what a write-in campaign is capable of doing but I’m committed to running. There is a grass-roots campaign of people out there who are against big boxes.”

Crosby is a lifelong resident of Belfast, served as superintendent of schools in Harmony and has been involved in city government for years, including stints on the SAD 34 board of directors and the planning board. Crosby said it would be unfortunate to see his hometown change from a place where retail competition thrives to one where a large store would capture the entire market.

“Diversification is competition,” Crosby said this week. “Perhaps 75,000 square feet best meets the criteria where you can be competitive. If you go to a larger store, such as 150,000 square feet, you get to the point where a business can become a monopoly. They can monopolize all retail-type businesses.”

Similar observations were made by Charlotte Peters and Larry Gleeson, the two candidates for the Ward 2 council seat.

But while Commercial Street resident Peters is unabashed in her opposition to big-boxes, Church Street resident Gleeson believes the issue is more complicated than the size of a store or the quality of its merchandise.

Gleeson said that he would abide by the voters’ decision on big boxes but believes that the issue deserves more planning and less passion.

“I favor a balanced approach but if people don’t want stores in excess of 75,000 square feet, so be it,” Gleeson said. “I did not support changing the zones, but I did support letting the council review proposals from developers. I think we should be consistent and have planning goals that should be openly arrived at. I’d rather see us go slow, put everything in place instead of throwing open the doors thinking we’ve got all kind of protection because we don’t. If the people say they want more than 75,000 square feet I don’t think we should turn that into meaning 200-300,000-square-feet stores.”

Peters has been involved in city government for years, most recently representing Ward 2 on the city charter commission. She holds that big-box stores would be a detriment to the viability of the downtown and disrupt the city’s neighborhoods.

“No big-box stores,” she said. “Once you let one in where does it end? They just keep coming.”

The city council terms up for grabs next Tuesday are set for three years, but future elections will determine two-year terms for the mayor and the five-member council if the new city charter wins voter approval. Besides reducing the length of council terms, the charter proposal also includes provisions for recalling elected municipal officials and binding referendums.

A charter commission elected in 1999 developed the charter proposal. The group incorporated many of the provisions of the existing charter, which was approved by the voters in 1969 and amended several times during the last decade. Other changes in the charter call for redistricting the five wards after every census, establishment of a long-term capital improvement program and provision dealing with public hearings, enactment of ordinances and expenditures beyond $300,000 on a single item.

Residents also will act on the proposed $16,551,512 budget for SAD 34 and elect five members to the school board. The budget package calls for spending $1.4 million more than was dedicated in the 2000-01 school year, which represents a 9.44 percent increase.

The actual cost to city taxpayers, who pay 58 percent of the amount required to operate the six-community school district, is $5,377,685. That represents an increase of $936,354, or 19 percent more than what the city contributed as its share of the school budget last year.

In the school board election, three candidates are vying for two open three-year terms and another three candidates are running unopposed for three open one-year terms.

Susan A. Cronin of Church Street, Lewis H. Baker of Robbins Road and Rachel McDonald are running for the three-year terms. David A. Loxtercamp of Salmond Street, Robert P. Anderson of Tufts Road and Raymond K. Moore of Church Street are running for one-year terms.

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