BRIDGTON – Subway had long been a fixture in town, but the arrival of other familiar chain businesses such as Dunkin’ Donuts and Family Dollar gave Scott Finlayson and his friends pause. When plans for a McDonald’s emerged, Finlayson decided the town needed to steer development in a different direction.

Thanks to petition drives spearheaded by Finlayson, voters on March 1 will decide whether Bridgton should ban “big-box” retailers and formula fast-food restaurants. Under the proposals, retail developments could not be larger than 30,000 square feet and restaurants that use standardized features like the establishment’s name, uniforms, architecture, color schemes and signage would not be allowed.

Both sides of the issue believe that the town is making strides — the local economy has diversified into areas like health care and tourism after major losses in manufacturing — but they disagree over how these kinds of businesses will affect Bridgton’s progress.

Finlayson sees big-box retailers and fast food chains as a threat to Bridgton’s downtown and small-town character. He also sees these businesses as a conduit for local money to flow out of town and as a drain on town resources.

“We’re not anti-business. We’re not anti-development,” he said. “We just want to do it right.”

Lee Eastman, however, sees the proposals as a form of discrimination against businesses that can be an asset to the community.

“We formed America on a free-enterprise system. This firmly goes against that,” said Eastman, chairman of the town’s Economic Development Committee. “You’re going to discriminate against them because you don’t like the way they look or the type of food they serve?”

Bridgton is not the first Maine community to have such a debate. York and Ogunquit adopted formula restaurant bans in recent years. Damariscotta and Newcastle imposed size caps on retailers in 2008 amid worries about Walmart opening a store in the midcoast.

The Bridgton proposals will be the subject of a public hearing held jointly by the Board of Selectmen and the Planning Board on Feb. 8.

Developer and Bridgton resident Mark Lopez plans to build a McDonald’s with adjoining retail space on Portland Road, the commercial stretch of Route 302 that leads to downtown. His project would be diagonally across from a Hannaford supermarket and at the foot of the road to Hancock Lumber.

Lopez, who is a member of the Economic Development Committee, said the restaurant will have an annual payroll of $425,000 — a factor that he sees as more important than where the profits go. He said that chains are part of what draws Bridgton residents to North Windham and North Conway, N.H., to shop. Without that type of draw, he argued, there won’t be enough people in the vicinity for a prosperous downtown.

“That’s all part of the equation. To think otherwise is a field of dreams,” he said.

The proposals would apply to projects that were pending before the town as of Dec. 1 — a period that would cover Lopez’s project. He said he is willing to challenge that provision in court if necessary.

It’s not clear which side is winning popular opinion.

Christina Ford doesn’t have a problem with big boxes or fast food as long as they don’t resemble a “boxed lunch on the side of the road.”

“We need jobs and if that is the only way we can get them, we’ll have to settle,” said Ford, who works at Bridgton Gas and Convenience on Main Street.

Down the street at Harry Barker’s Emporium, Linda Covell worries about the revival of downtown — an eclectic mixture of establishments where a visitor can buy yarn for a knitting project, then cross the street for a tattoo.

“I think it takes away from the small-town feel and it does affect the business of those who have been here for years,” said Covell, who works at the antiques shop.

Paul Means, an insurance broker from Stoneham, Mass., thinks chains can dilute a community’s uniqueness. But the part-time resident does enjoy Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and is a big fan of Renys, the Maine-based chain of department stores.

While the proposed ban wouldn’t affect an existing operation, a retail store the size of the Main Street Renys would not be allowed in the future.

“I don’t think anybody in Maine would consider Renys a big-box store,” Means said, with his recently purchased carbon monoxide detector from the store in hand.

The Greater Bridgton Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce announced last week that it was opposed to the proposal, after a deep and difficult discussion, said Executive Director Jim Mains. The organization’s stance is that the limits would hurt opportunities for future growth, but its statement noted that individual members may not agree.

Mains believes the debate will lead Bridgton to see the value of zoning, which could provide defined districts for different types of uses and a degree of predictability for residents and developers. Bridgton adopted zoning in 1971, but it was repealed in 1977.

Finlayson said whichever way the vote goes, the debate has people thinking about the town’s future.

“It needs to go to the community at large to make that decision,” he said.

Staff Writer Ann S. Kim can be contacted at 791-6383 or at:

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