In 10 or 20 years, local residents will wonder how it came to be that the beautiful landscape of rock-strewn meadows and pine-draped, sun-speckled northern lakes with which this region was naturally endowed disappeared. They will wonder how such noble terrain came to be replaced by suburban sprawl, packed tight around waters distinguishable only by their size from the artificial ponds of planned communities and golf course developments outside large cities anywhere else in the country. To understand the loss, they will need to look no further than the civic stewardship displayed by the Windham Planning Board in granting final approval last week to Sebago Heights, the 91-house, 175-acre development on the Windham-Raymond town line.

According to the Suburban Weekly’s report, the Planning Board voted unanimously, 3-0, for approval of the development which will be the largest in the town’s history. The vote occurred over the objections and serious concerns of local residents and town officials, including the town manager, the police and fire chiefs, the public works director, and the Raymond town manager whose town will be disproportionately affected by the mega-development.

Two members of the Planning Board abstained for “lack of knowledge.” Another recused himself because his employer designed the development. Windham’s town attorney recused himself from participation in negotiations because he represented the developers in his private capacity. The developer’s Community Impact Statement, required by the Town Code to be submitted prior to any approval, was found to be “incorrect.” One of the voting members claimed, with a vagueness matched only by implausibility, that he was not permitted to exercise any independent judgment and was required to vote for approval, under these facts, because of an unspecified, and obviously un-probed, interplay between state law and inadequate town ordinances.

It is hard to imagine a more comical overabundance of deficiencies than this “Planning” process. Under healthy self-government, there is no option for responsible regulators to abstain from votes due to “lack of knowledge.” If the abstaining board members mean that insufficient information has been submitted for the exercise of informed judgment, they must vote against the proposal. Otherwise there is no due process. The process is illegitimate by virtue of an incomplete record. Alternatively, if they mean by “lack of knowledge” that adequate information has been submitted but they have not bothered to absorb it, then they should resign (not abstain) for functional incapacity or dereliction of their duty. There is no third option.

Similarly, a situation in which one Planning Board member and the town attorney are being paid by the developer suggests hardball attempts to co-opt the approval process. Fair enough. That’s a typical part in the motor of suburban sprawl, and the officials went through the motions of technically removing themselves. But the contamination to the process cannot be so easily removed when the officials, influence reaches far beyond the formal votes and negotiations from which they removed themselves. At a minimum, fairness and good judgment would have required the Board, in the exercise of its discretion, to pay especially keen attention, under these circumstances, to the serious safety and quality-of-life concerns raised by so many deeply affected parties. Instead, these concerns were ignored in favor of the self-serving and meaningless generalities of the developers chalking up yet another win.

Protecting the great natural gifts of the region obviously must be balanced with the need for economic development and housing. Unfortunately, nothing could demonstrate more clearly than this episode that the local officials charged with this delicate balancing are totally incapable of doing it. The greatest asset of this region, apart from the decency and industriousness of its residents, is its unique and fragile landscape. It is obviously completely unguarded.

Maybe there’s some consolation in the fact that no impressionable Iraqis, as they struggle to find the cultural resources for conscientious democracy, were witness to this cynical and irresponsible process. It would have brought shame to the town’s own capacities for self-government amidst conditions of complete safety.

Thomas A. Connolly

South Casco

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