BRIDGTON — Voters overwhelmingly rejected two ballot questions Tuesday that would have banned big-box stores and fast-food or formula restaurants.

Unofficial results show that the proposal to ban fast-food and formula restaurants was defeated 924-472. The proposal to limit retail developments to 30,000 square feet lost by a vote of 957-431.

“We may have lost at the polls, but I feel we won a moral victory because for the first time in 30 years our town is talking about developing a comprehensive plan,” said Scott Finlayson, who led the citizens petition drive that prompted the referendum. “We’ve managed to pull the people’s heads out of the sand.”

Finlayson said Bridgton has nothing in its land-use codes to prevent either form of development.

Bill Macdonald, who owns Macdonald Motors on Portland Road, said he plans to double the size of his 80,000-square-foot car dealership. He said Tuesday’s ballot questions were poorly worded and only would have harmed businesses, like his, that wanted to grow.

“My car dealership is not a big-box store,” Macdonald said. “Yet under this ordinance, this is exactly who it would have affected.”

The ban on restaurants with standardized features like the name, uniforms, architecture, color schemes and signs would have been retroactive to projects pending before the town as of Dec. 1.

That would have included a proposed McDonald’s restaurant on Portland Road. The developer, Mark Lopez, said he would have challenged the provision in court.

The ballot questions were prompted by development in recent years along a portion of Portland Road – Route 302 – just south of downtown Bridgton.

A Hannaford supermarket, a Dunkin’ Donuts and a Family Dollar store have been built in the area, where the town’s lack of zoning is apparent in an assortment of building-related businesses, restaurants, shops, offices and the occasional home.

Last year, plans emerged for the McDonald’s diagonally across the road from Hannaford. Those plans spurred petition drives led by Finlayson, and ultimately Tuesday’s referendum.

Informal groups formed on both sides of the issue. Each had mailers and an Internet presence. The opposition’s effort included robocalls, fliers and a social event.

Finlayson of Keeping Bridgton Local and Macdonald of Bridgton Citizens for Responsible Growth estimated that a couple thousand dollars were spent on the campaigns. Only communities with populations of more than 15,000 are covered by the state law that requires reporting of certain types of campaign spending.

Turnout was heavy for the referendum, with almost 1,400 people voting. The annual school vote typically draws 200 to 1,000 people, said Town Clerk Laurie Chadbourne.

Cathy Grigsby, an art teacher who supported the bans, said Bridgton needs to keep its small-town feel. “I kind of have a bias against big corporations,” she said, because they can make all towns look the same.

Maggie and Gary Burhite, a retired teacher and a retired Air Force pilot, opposed the bans because they felt they would be too limiting. “I’m afraid it’s going to discourage people from investing in Bridgton,” Maggie Burhite said.

Her husband said there are other ways to keep the downtown small and local while steering some businesses toward Portland Road. “To me, Portland Road isn’t all that beautiful as it is,” he said.

Roger Lowell, a retired teacher who favored the bans, said people are justifiably concerned about making a living, but the businesses that were targeted don’t hold the solution. “People need to be creative and keep Bridgton a nice, friendly place to live,” he said.

Bridgton joined other Maine communities in debating the issue.

In 2006, the Portland City Council adopted zoning to limit the number and location of formula businesses, in response to a planned Hooters restaurant. The ban was repealed the next year, and a task force was created to study the matter.

York and Ogunquit banned formula restaurants in recent years. Damariscotta and Newcastle limited the size of stores in 2008 because of fears about Walmart opening a store in the midcoast. Finlayson borrowed language for Bridgton’s proposed ban from York and Damariscotta.

At Town Hall, Alan Manoian, the community and economic development director, was collecting signatures from people who were interested in serving on a comprehensive plan committee. He said the referendum led to a consensus that Bridgton needs a better way of managing its growth.

 

Staff Writer Ann S. Kim can be contacted at 791-6383 or at: akim@pressherald.com

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: dhoey@pressherald.com