AUGUSTA – The Maine House voted 90-59 on Tuesday to effectively repeal the Informed Growth Act, a law that was enacted just four years ago to protect Maine’s downtown business districts from the effects of big-box stores.

The vote, while preliminary, followed an impassioned debate about the character of Maine’s traditional downtowns and whether Walmart and other national retail chains have hurt local businesses or helped them by attracting more people to communities.

Proponents of L.D. 322 said the Informed Growth Act discourages national companies from building stores in Maine because the law adds costs and risks to the permitting process.

Moreover, they said, the big retail chains are popular.

Rep. Lance Harvell, R-Farmington, said Farmington residents used to drive to Auburn to shop before the arrival of Walmart in town a few years ago.

By protecting existing businesses from competition, he said, the Informed Growth Act discourages new businesses and innovation. He likened it to prohibiting Henry Ford in the 1920s from building an auto factory in a town to protect wagon and harness manufacturers.

The Informed Growth Act’s supporters said the law allows communities to examine the hidden costs of big-box development.

Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, said repealing the law would make it easier for out-of-state corporations to build big-box stores that would hurt locally owned retailers in traditional downtowns.

He pointed to downtown Brunswick. A few years ago, the town lost Grand City, a department store that had a soda fountain, because of competition from big-box stores at nearby Cooks Corner. He said other downtowns, such as Augusta and Biddeford, have been hurt by big-box stores built at the edge of the cities.

The downtowns have suffered economically, he said, so the “lifeblood and quality of life has, unfortunately, been sucked dry.”

L.D. 322 would not eliminate the law. It would make it effective only in communities that vote to use it.

But cities and towns would be reluctant to use it, fearing that they would put themselves at a competitive disadvantage to neighboring communities, said Daphne Loring, coordinator for the Maine Fair Trade Campaign.

“We are concerned that communities will be punished for good planning,” she said.

The Senate has yet to take up the bill. If it approves it, the bill will go back to the House for a final vote.

The Informed Growth Act was enacted in 2007, after several communities in the midcoast tried to block big-box stores from being built within their borders out of concern that the big stores would drive local retailers out of business.

The act requires any developer of a project of more than 75,000 square feet to pay $40,000 for an independent study of 11 possible impacts, including jobs, wages, municipal revenue and services.

The study must be presented at a public hearing. The local planning board then decides whether the project will have “an undue adverse impact” and, if so, cites at least two of the 11 factors.

The planning board then must determine whether the adverse impact outweighs the benefit, and reject the project if it does.

Vermont is the only state with a similar law, although it is less comprehensive. Some cities and regions have adopted similar measures.

It has been difficult to determine the law’s impact because of the lack of retail expansion during the recent economic downtown.

MaineToday Media State House Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 699-6261 or at:

[email protected]