Gray needs design guidelines, not standards

Gray residents and businesses should pay close attention to discussions now beginning on the possibility of imposing design standards for new commercial structures in the village. More importantly, Gray planners should learn from the mistakes Windham made with its recent experience of creating design standards.

In an attempt to reverse years of less-than-desirable architectural design in the North Windham shopping district, Windham planning officials attempted to impose design standards on new or existing businesses in town. From 2002 to 2006, officials spent many hours and many thousands of dollars coming up with a 91-page design standards booklet that would have detailed how businesses could be built or renovated. Buildings would have had to conform to certain color schemes and exterior siding textures. Overall, planners were going for a New England village style of building. But, once it came time to approve the standards, residents and businesses came out strongly against what they saw as big, imposing government telling business what it could and could not do.

The business community and town officials were able to hammer out a compromise, choreographed by the cool-headedness of councilor David Tobin. The deal saved years of effort in coming up with a booklet detailing what the town would like to see for architectural design. But, the concepts cited in the booklet would be a guide, not a strict requirement for planning board approval.

The compromise made just about everyone happy in Windham. The businesses, from smaller stores to big box giants, were happy because they could build how they wanted and, more importantly, what they could afford. Town officials were happy because there was now some literature to hand prospective developers indicating the type of exteriors the town was hoping for. And since the town put so much effort into developing the guidelines, new businesses would want to follow the guidelines because it reflected what the community, and customers, wanted.

Some may say that standards for exterior design are a necessity. They’ll note that a community benefits greatly from a clean, uniform appearance. They’ll point to towns like Falmouth and Freeport, which impose these types of standards, and penalize////Do they? How?///// businesses who fail to conform.

But, while it seems to have worked for those towns, do Gray residents really want their town to be another Falmouth or Freeport? Contrived and highly manicured as they are? Sure, downtown Gray isn’t the most appealing sight, and it’s understandable why town planners want to see it change. But government-imposed rules for appearance has a twinge of big brother to it. Yes, it’s understandable when government imposes rules for building safety codes, but when it delves into the realm of aesthetics, it’s going too far.

The only answer in a free society is to let consumers decide the fate of a company. If consumers stop patronizing a business because of its look, the company will act quickly to improve its appearance. That’s the way the market has worked in its successful past. There’s no reason to change it now.

-John Balentine, editor

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