Originally published in the Maine Sunday Telegram.
No prudent company ever makes a major business decision that could significantly affect its operations and overall financial health without evaluating both the benefits and the costs. The same is true for most families and individuals.
In deciding whether to make an offer on a house or buy a particular car, we typically weigh both the pluses and minuses.
How well will our purchase retain its value? How much will it cost to maintain and insure? Will buying it limit our ability to pursue other, perhaps more advantageous, financial opportunities?
This is prudent economic decision-making. Unfortunately, the vast majority of cities and towns in Maine have no mechanism in place for applying the same thoughtful process to large-scale retail development proposals.
They usually decide whether to approve these projects without any objective information about how the development will impact the local economy and municipal finances.
State lawmakers are now considering a bill, the Informed Growth Act, that would give all Maine communities a process for evaluating the costs and benefits of large retail projects.
The bill has garnered diverse support. Its list of sponsors counts both Democrats and Republicans. Its advocates include more than 150 business owners from across the state, along with labor unions, environmental groups, and former and current town officials.
The measure applies only to the very largest retail stores –those over 75,000 square feet, which is about the size of one-and-a-half football fields and big enough to have profound impacts.
Companies that typically build stores of this size or larger include Home Depot, Lowe’s, Target, and Wal-Mart. The bill stipulates that developers of such stores pay a modest fee — less than one-half of 1 percent of the total cost of development — to enable town officials to commission an impact study.
Such studies are routinely done elsewhere in the country. They analyze such questions as:
What will be the cost to taxpayers of providing municipal services, such as police services and road maintenance, for the new development?
Will the new store likely lead to vacancies and blight in older shopping centers and in the downtown?
Will it have a positive or negative impact on the number and quality of jobs in the region?
Towns would still have the final say over whether to approve a project. The study itself provides only analysis and data. It’s up to town officials to evaluate the information, consider the pluses and minuses, and make their own determination about whether the project would harm the local economy and municipal finances.
Indeed, the Informed Growth Act actually enhances local control. Not only does it allow towns to say no to projects that would have significant adverse impacts, but it also empowers them to negotiate with developers for modifications to their projects that would mitigate the public costs.
At the very least, it ensures that city officials, residents, business owners, downtown managers, and others know what the effects of a large retail development are likely to be and can prepare accordingly.
The bill is designed to fit within the existing development review process. It requires that the study be completed within six months — less than the length of time most of these projects already require under current review.
Although Maine towns have the authority to enact local ordinances requiring impact studies, there are substantial advantages to establishing a common review standard statewide.
Most notably, it ensures that communities can insist on impact studies without worrying that developers will bypass them for another town that does not require such an analysis.
The Informed Growth Act is both prudent and urgently needed. Maine faces tremendous development pressures.
Sprawl has been linked to the rising cost of local government and, according to some economic development experts, now threatens the very assets on which Maine will depend for its future economic growth.
More than ever, Maine towns need tools to make informed decisions about development.