Bethel's vision of the future 1998: Comprehensive Plan to be revisited
The 1998 Bethel Comprehensive Plan called for a new recreational bridge across the Androscoggin River, a West Bethel Fire Station, the acquisition of a public swimming area, an expansion of the Pathway, more access sites to the Androscoggin River and improvements to the Transfer Station and airport.
The plan also recommended a variety of town ordinance amendments, including many to regulate land use and protect natural resources like wildlife habitat and scenic views.
Another recommendation called for the establishment of a sign ordinance to regulate business directional signs.
In the years that followed, said former Planning Board Chairman Al Cressy, a large portion of the 80 “recommended actions” has been accomplished.
One particularly significant and controversial one – the establishment of development districts or zones – was not.
Following a discussion by selectmen last week, a new Comprehensive Plan Committee will be formed in 2013 to review the 1998 plan and, looking again into the future, update it.
A Comprehensive Plan is not binding, but rather provides a guide for future town planning from which policies and ordinances may be developed.
Maine requires that towns have an up-to-date Comprehensive Plan under the state’s Growth Management Law. A plan is also required for eligibility for some grant programs.
The creation of the 1998 plan was a long process – five years. It was followed by the work of the “2003 Committee,” which was established by selectmen and tracked and facilitated implementation of the plan by a variety of organizations. But that committee’s primary focus was crafting proposed ordinance changes, said Cressy, who was a member.
The Comprehensive Plan includes an inventory of existing natural resources, land use and development patterns, outdoor recreation resources, population characteristics, historic resources, housing, economy and public facilities and services.
It also includes maps depicting related subjects such as scenic sites/views, wildlife habitat, road conditions and sewers.
For example, a scenic views map locates 20 views from public ways that the 1998 committee identified. Roads or streets with such views included Middle Intervale, East Bethel, Mayville, Vernon and Flat, as well as Routes 26 and 232.
A second section of the plan identifies “planning issues” related to the inventoried topics and suggests policies, such as the conservation of the scenic views listed and conservation of wildlife habitat.
To conserve scenic views, the plan recommends a detailed scenic site/views analysis be done with landowners to expand on the information in the inventory, followed by the development of “measures to conserve their value.”
And as one step to conserve wildlife habitat, the plan recommended that for applicants seeking Planning Board approval for projects, the town should “amend the subdivision and Site Plan Review Ordinances to require the planning assistant to provide an applicant information available from the Maine Dept. of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife on the location of significant wildlife habitats, including fisheries, and measures to conserve the identified habitats.”
While the scenic site analysis did not happen, the requirement to provide IF&W information did. The town’s planning assistant provides it in the form of IF&W “Beginning with Habitat” maps, according to current planning assistant Vicki Rackliffe.
Some plan policies were implemented but have since been challenged – like the directional sign ordinance, which was adopted by the town in 1999 to support a safe area transportation policy.
A special committee is now at work reforming that ordinance, as a result of complaints that it hinders businesses from advertising.
The 2003 Committee’s final report, completed in October of that year, noted that several areas under the topic of economic develop still needed to be considered: a business park, tax increment financing and the impact of the town’s Sewer System Direct Charge (a user fee) on economic growth.
Also still needing attention, the report said, was regional affordable housing.
The SSDC was amended several years ago and is no longer as expensive, according to Town Manager Jim Doar.
There was no significant progress on either TIF or a business park, said Cressy.
“Economic development would appear to be a legitimate area to have a discussion about in the context of the CP update,” he said.
As for affordable housing, Community Concepts oversaw the development of a housing complex at Bethel Station after the committee concluded its work.
The 2003 Committee also recommended that a review of the Land Use and Development Patterns section of the plan take place in 2004. The review would “focus on an assessment of the applicability of zoning, and also other options, in the context of the current situation and future needs of the community.”
But the review did not happen, said Cressy. He noted that one area of town was successfully designated as a district – the Historic District around the Broad Street area.
“The committee members went door-to-door to get support for it,” he said.
Cressy said he believes that after the update for the Comprehensive Plan is complete, a followup process similar to the 2003 Committee would help ensure the plan does not “end up on the shelf.”
The town will advertise in November and December for nine Comprehensive Plan Committee members. Doar recommended members include himself, a selectman, two Planning Board members, two businesspeople, two residents and one SAD 44 School Board member.
The panel would likely be appointed in January and start work immediately.
After the committee is formed, a request for proposals will go out for a consultant to advise the group.