Outcry over proposed ordinances prompts West Gardiner officials to scuttle 2 of them

WEST GARDINER — Four ordinances proposed for the April Town Meeting were whittled down to two on Thursday, following a sometimes contentious two-hour standing-room-only public hearing.

The four proposals reflect the changes that are reshaping communities across central Maine: the proliferation of commercial solar installations, the evolving medical marijuana market and the growing number of self-storage facilities.

The southern Kennebec County town, known to many because it is home to the northernmost service plaza on the Maine Turnpike, has rejected tools to regulate growth.

West Gardiner has no zoning other than what state law requires; it has no Planning Board; building permits are not required; and its land-use plan is part of its Comprehensive Plan, which was approved in 1990 but is now under review.

“It’s historical,” Greg Couture, chairman of the West Gardiner Board of Selectmen, said Friday, noting that people don’t want to be told what they can do on their own land. “We hate regulations, and we hate permits, and that’s why you don’t have to have a building permit to do anything in town. (The selectmen) ride around in town to see what you did anyway.”

The Board of Selectmen serves as the town’s assessors and as a sort of Planning Board.

With development pressure pushing into West Gardiner, town residents voted in December for a temporary ban on new commercial solar energy systems, self-storage facilities, and medical marijuana retail stores and cultivation facilities.

During the moratorium, selectmen drafted ordinances that would regulate those activities to present at Town Meeting, which this year is scheduled for Saturday, April 1.

Because proposed ordinances cannot be changed at Town Meeting, Thursday’s public hearing was a chance for residents to weigh in. More than 200 people gathered at the Fire Department — more than generally take part in the annual Town Meeting — fired up in part by what they read on social media, heard from friends and neighbors or read in the proposed ordinances.

That led to some fiery exchanges between residents and meeting moderator John Clark, who threatened expulsion from the meeting for those who spoke without being recognized.

For nearly an hour, residents picked apart the proposal to regulate how commercial solar energy systems could be operated in West Gardiner and wrangled over amendments, and argued for a longer delay in putting anything into place.

The language in the proposal was taken from an ordinance that was passed in Readfield, but resident Andrea Lenhart highlighted problem areas.

“This ordinance actually makes reference to bodies that don’t exist in West Gardiner, including a planning board and an appeals board,” she said. “They do not exist, yet they are included in the language of the ordinance that was provided to us.”

The proposed ordinance gives the sole authority of the application and review process to three selectmen who she said she’s not sure have the expertise to do that. She questioned whether they and the town’s code enforcement staff would require additional expertise training or certification and noted taxpayers would pay for that.

“This is woefully inefficient. We do not have a planning board, and we do not have an appeals board for residents to say, ‘You know what? We don’t agree with this approval.’ There’s no recourse for us. All the power is in the hands of three selectmen as it is currently written and that disenfranchises all of us,” she said. “I’m not having it.”

That drew a round of applause.

Residents were also surprised to learn that three solar projects are slated for development in West Gardiner already. Couture said there’s no process for the town to have a say in those projects, which were permitted through the state before the town enacted its temporary ban in December.

Of the three, a small one has been completed, on property that Joel Davis owns. He chose to put solar on that land because its use is limited by salt contamination, and can’t be used for pasture or a house lot.

Davis said he worked with attorneys on agreements to ensure his interests were protected and with the solar company to ensure the panels are not visible from his house or the road. “It’s my property and I can do what I want,” he said. “I could go tomorrow and buy a thousand pigs to put on that property and that would upset my neighbors a lot more. I don’t know about your property; I could care less. I have (a) storage unit going in next to me. I don’t care. It’s their land, they can do what they want.”

Residents also said they were expecting to see two articles on the Town Meeting warrant with each proposed ordinance, one to regulate each of the uses and one to ban them.

Couture said he chose not to do that because an article to ban an activity would be presented without an ordinance attached to it. The second article would be the proposed ordinances.

After nearly an hour, residents supported a ban on all new commercial solar farms and they prohibited expansion of any currently existing or in the works.

They took a similar approach to the self-storage facility ordinance, limiting it to the number that already exist and prohibiting those from expanding.

After more debate, the two proposed ordinances related to medical marijuana will not be considered at Town Meeting. Couture said those articles in the Town Meeting warrant will be passed over as the warrant has already been finalized.

Among the people who spoke up was Lisa Roberts. Roberts, a West Gardiner resident, is also the deputy director of strategic initiatives with the state Office of Cannabis Policy. She clarified at the outset that she was speaking for herself only.

“I do know a thing or two about cannabis policy in Maine,” Roberts said.

Roberts said she spoke up at the December special town meeting, to let residents know that the ordinances being drafted were running afoul of state law, and while she left her card and offered to help, she was not contacted.

“Medical Cannabis program, it is complicated, it is complex and confusing,” she said. “And I bet most citizens in this room have no idea what will happen if (you) ban this.”

A ban would put the town in direct conflict with state law. Caregivers have a right to cultivate cannabis, produce products and sell to patients that cannot be infringed, she said, but the town can impose regulation.

She pointed out that West Gardiner has not opted in to allow any kind of commercial medical cannabis activity like retail stores.

“If we don’t opt in, (selectmen) can’t authorize (retail stores),” she said.

Following the meeting, Couture said he would redraft the commercial solar farm and self-storage facility proposed ordinances to reflect the changes and post them.

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