Law keeping sprawl out of Maine communities endangered. Bill comes up for a vote today

BY RAMONA DU HOUX

February 28th, 2011 

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Bangor is enjoying a Renascence with new shops, museums, and restaurants. When the mall was built it devastated the downtown making some businesses close. The Informed Growth Act gives communities the opportunity to decided on their own futures. photo by Ramona du Houx

One of the regulations Gov. LePage would like to see repealed is the Maine’s Informed Growth Act. Enacted by the Legislature in 2007, the act requires municipalities to conduct economic impact studies to determine whether proposed large-scale retail developments like Wal-Mart would have “undue adverse impacts” on local economies and communities.

“The 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 Gov. Baldacci during the signing of the law. “This will not stifle economic growth. It will enhance the flow of information about a project among developers, municipal officials, and the general public.”

The Informed Growth Act’s economic impact analysis are performed by an independent consultant chosen jointly by the town and the developer, and paid for by a fee charged to the developer — a modest expense in light of a development project. 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. It’s an important economic development tool which helps Maine keep its unique character and distinguishable downtowns, which are experiencing revivals with a creative economy.

“The Informed Growth Act embodies fairness, by providing the framework that empowers communities to make prudent and informed decisions for their economic futures,” said Daphne Loring, coordinator of the Maine Fair Trade Campaign, as she testified before the Regulatory Fairness and Reform Committee on behalf of the 61 organizations and small Maine businesses that support the Informed Growth Act.

Historically, large-scale retail has led to sprawl, to increased costs to municipalities, and the closure of local businesses. Such impacts send ripples through the economy and have longstanding affects on local business, quality of life, working families, and land use. The Informed Growth Act encourages projects that will pay livable wages, contribute to downtowns, and keep dollars in Maine.

“Prior to the Informed Growth Act, economic impacts were not considered,” said Loring. “There were several communities where citizens, business owners, had significant concerns about the economic impacts of proposed projects, and the planning board was not able to consider those factors, because they did not have the ordinances in place to consider economic factors.”

LePage sees its repeal as an important sign that, “Maine is open for business.”

“It would open the door to sprawl,” said Loring. “Here in Maine and around the country, we are facing extraordinary environmental, economic, and fiscal challenges. Now, more than ever, we need processes like the Informed Growth Act to ensure vitality to Maine’s economy, communities, businesses, towns, and quality of place. It would be absolutely irresponsible to do away with this valuable tool for Maine’s communities.”