April 04, 2020

Bangor’s planning process

The guiding principle of development in most communities is the “Comprehensive Plan.”

Both words are of equal importance. Development policy must be “comprehensive” in that it considers every aspect of a community’s needs, and a “plan” in its view of both the immediate and long-range needs of residential and commercial interests.

In a city of Bangor’s size and with its land-mass configuration, the planning process is fascinating. There is a shortage of middle-income housing, which means that subdivisions are going to be increasingly a part of the planning agenda. Bangor is also the retail and service hub for all of northeastern Maine, which assures us that the traditional commercial areas of the city must be augmented by new areas in which services can be provided and goods can be sold.

Bangor has a number of neighborhoods that are very old, and an increasing number of relatively new ones. The preservation and protection of these residential areas is one of the constant factors in Planning Board deliberations.

Fundamentally, the Comprehensive Plan designates certain areas for one type of activity or another, as well as designating some areas for “mixed use.” This is defined as “zoning.”

There is the pervasive requirement to consider environmental impacts, buffers and various restrictions on the kind of activities that may take place, sometimes even restricting the hours that a business may operate, or generate traffic.

As specific as this all sounds, it is far from “rigid.” There must be a reasonable degree of flexibility permitted so that valuable opportunities may be seized, and emerging realities can be considered.

Perhaps nothing draws more citizen interest and concern than the consideration of a zone change that will permit commercial activity in some proximity to a residential area. In particular, when a parcel of land that has been zoned for “residential” is proposed for commercial or professional use, the residents, understandably, get nervous. “What will happen to my home’s value?”; “How will the quality of our home life be affected?”; “Will this produce more traffic and noise?”; “Will the natural landscape or environment be damaged?” All valid concerns and questions, and the Planning Board hears them all.

Given each citizen’s right to express concerns, and even opposition to any proposed zone change, the Planning Board has a responsibility to weigh the needs of all parties involved as objectively and realistically as humanly possible. That’s the great challenge.

Faced with a couple dozen nervous, or “angry” citizens, the Planning Board may be told that it is violating both the spirit and the letter of the “law,” as the Comprehensive Plan is widely viewed. In fact, it is “the law” but it is not an ultimate law, to remain forever unchanged or unmodified. In fact, our city charter requires that the Comprehensive Plan be formally reviewed by the Planning Board and City Council every five years. This is a good thing. Imagine what an economic disadvantage Bangor would be at if the Comprehensive Plan of 1960, or 1970, or even 1980 were still in effect with no changes having been made. As much as we, particularly the older generation, would like things to remain unchanged, that’s not the way life works. Change is inevitably, and how we manage it determines whether it will be to our profit or our detriment.

Some of us can remember when the last outpost of commercial activity on Broadway was at the corner of Broadway and Alden Street. Beyond that, it was traditional homes, open land and woods. The same can be said of Stillwater Avenue and the Hogan Road. As traffic became more intense, and customers demanded more selection and more parking at retail stores, the commercial activity of Bangor gradually pushed its way outward, to the north, to the east, and to the west. No longer could “downtown” remain the epicenter of business and professional services. While a few old neighborhoods were displaced or reconfigured by the growing needs of businesses and institutions, it would seem fair to say that in the total perspective, Bangor’s planners have done a good – even commendable – job of balancing the myriad needs and concerns of our community. It’s one of the most difficult tasks in municipal government and the folks who do it don’t get all the credit they deserve.

While the nuts and bolts of preparing a zone change or site plan application for consideration by the Planning Board is done by the professional staff, the Planning Board meetings are very much a public process. The board is composed of people in many different walks of life, with different points of view about how the city can and should grow. And the citizens can also be heard, as they often are. Somehow, the process works pretty well and once a Planning Board member accepts the fact that not everyone’s point of view can be supported nor can everyone’s preference be satisfied, it can be very rewarding responsibility.

The most important caution to observe is not to fall into the line of thinking that no neighborhood should ever have to consider change, or that only predetermined areas can be considered for business and commercial activity. These are matters that need as much flexibility and they need conviction. Bangor cannot draw lines in the sand and say, “This area shall remain forever free from any kind of business development.” It all depends on many factors, not the least of which is the willingness of commercial interests to talk with residential property owners and try to find ways that can mitigate any potential negatives for the neighborhood.

A city must grow. Without growth, its vital services cannot be supported. And good planning is one of the keys to the kind of growth that Bangor must undergo in the next few years. Our region is only about 45 percent as large as the Greater Portland area, and while many Bangor residents say “we don’t want to become another Portland” the fear is ungrounded. The geographical differences between Portland and Bangor are starkly evident. Portland will always have certain advantages that Bangor will never have. But when you look at the population density of Penobscot County – 44.8 persons per square mile, compared with Cumberland County’s population density of 315.5 persons per square mile – it becomes obvious that we have the room that we need to grow, and that we have laid the foundation for the kind of growth that will only increase the unique quality of life that our citizens enjoy.

If one is truly objective, it could be said that the planning process in Bangor over the past 20 years has worked out pretty well, with minimal disruption of pain for all concerned.

Hal Wheeler is a member of the Bangor Planning Board.

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