Big Box Stores Take a Back Seat as Law Declares Citizens Rights to Information

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A wide rage of concerned groups, enviromental - fair trade- etc,  who backed The Informed Growth Act,   are photographed here with the governor at the signing

By Ramona du Houx

Recognizing the merits of the Brookings Institution report on Maine, which advised the state on how to balance growth by changing government policies and practices, while maintaining Maine’s quality of life and investing in Maine’s global economic future, elected officials are working towards these goals.

The Informed Growth Act helps Maine strike a balance in the process of developing our towns and cities by providing information.

"The most important balance that we can try to create in the state of Maine is between maintaining our quality of place and in supporting our economy. One of those can’t outweigh the other," said Rep. Chris Barstow, the sponsor of LD 1810. "It doesn’t make for a good community if you have a bustling economy but the quality of life and the quality of place in your community are such that you don’t want to live there because it’s so overdeveloped. If you can find a balance where you have good development and good businesses with excellent wages and benefits, and you also have the quality of life and place — that makes Maine a big community."ebox4.jpg (22546 bytes)

(Photo: Rep. Chris Barstow was the sponsor of The Informed Growth Act)

The Informed Growth Act, the first law of its kind in the nation, stipulates that cities and towns evaluate the impact of large-scale retail development proposals on jobs, local businesses, and municipal finances and approve only those projects that will not have an undue adverse effect on the local economy.

"This law guarantees that, along with environmental, traffic and other impacts, the economic impact of a proposed retail development project of 75,000 square feet or greater is evaluated as part of the local permitting process. Local policymakers will get input from recognized experts, as well as the public, as part of this process," said Governor Baldacci. "This will not stifle economic growth but will rather enhance the flow of information about a project among developers, municipal officials and the general public."

The Informed Growth Act’s economic impact analysis is performed by an independent consultant chosen jointly by the town and the developer, and paid for by a fee charged to the developer. It evaluates the effects of the proposed development on existing businesses, jobs, wages, vacancy rates, the cost of municipal services, and the volume of "sales revenue retained and reinvested" in the community.

After the analysis is complete, the town must hold a public hearing. The law gives the town the authority to reject the development.

The act ensures that, even in areas zoned for commercial development, citizens and local officials will always have an opportunity to evaluate big-box development and make informed decisions about whether to approve or reject such projects.

"This is a tremendous victory for the people of Maine, our communities, workers, and local economies," said Daphne Loring of the Maine Fair Trade Campaign.

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The governor with Union repersentatives who backed The Informed Growth Act

"I think this bill is about allowing cities and towns to have both the information and the kick in the pants they might need to truly evaluate the big picture when it comes to the addition of category killer type stores to their community," said Stacy Gervais owner of Stacy’s Hallmark in Augusta.

The bill’s passage was the result of the work of a broad coalition of over 180 small businesses, numerous municipal officials, and many labor, environmental, and community organizations.

"Small businesses are the backbone and character of our communities and economy. It’s very important that we try and preserve their place and space in our towns throughout the state. On top of the contributions of providing good jobs and benefits to workers, they also make community contributions. It’s very important to maintain their place in the community and make sure that backbone is intact," said Barstow.

"We’re providing fairness both to the permit application holders and also to the community that is going to choose whether or not the development should be allowed to move forward. In some cases these types of developments can be positive, because they can supplement existing businesses. Obviously data has shown that if a Wal-Mart comes into town, wages and benefits are poor, and it actually takes money from the local economy and sends it out of state. We don’t want to be extreme and ban these types of retail developments; at the same time we don’t want it to be a free pass to come into a community and build what you want."

This law protects the rights of citizens and helps keep Maine—Maine.

"I want my children to be able to have the same kind of experience that I had growing up in Maine in a nurturing community, enjoying the quality of place and life in this state," said Barstow. "I want them to get a quality education and jobs, here in Maine. I hope we can have seventh generation or eighth generation Barstows in the area where I grew up."

"The two most important responsibilities that we have are to our children and our natural resources," said Governor Baldacci. "What this legislation does is — by protecting our natural resources we are protecting our children because their quality of place, the environment that they are going to live in, their communities that they will raise their families in, and the businesses they are going to work in are being developed by this kind of informed legislation."

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Rep. Chris Barstow and his daughter at the signing of his bill - The Informed Growth Act