Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Which way to Oz?

Like many Gray citizens, I participated in the 2002 comprehensive plan update, lending my voice to what I wanted a developing Gray to look like in 2015. The consensus was fairly overwhelming that residents strongly supported preserving Gray's "rural character" and open space while promoting economic development that remained compatible with the community's character and scale. Citizens spoke, the Planning Board and Council voted to approve goals and policies that achieved citizen desires, and the state accepted our plan.

In five short years , Gray's elected officials have succeeded in dismantling just about every component of the comprehensive plan except "economic development". Oh yes they did manage to erase that caveat of "compatibility" with town character from the equation. Lets look at the "new" direction that three successive Councils have brought us:

Unrelenting subdivision construction in rural areas. Subdivision happens, but should it exceed the rate of frequency experienced by our surrounding towns? Even Windham has growth control measures to limit the number of homes constructed each year so that the schools and public services will not be overloaded.

The "new" McDonald's, otherwise known as "The Bunker". Will they be introducing a new product line called the Adolfburger? Talk about architectural compatibility with the rest of the Village Centre. Great job Planning Board and Planning Consultant!

The new Rite Aid. This looks suspiciously like the Rite Aid in Westbrook, and that is always a goal to aspire to.

Target is coming to Town, either on the autoauction land or on McConky Road. Of course we all know that this use will be a standalone facility sized only to serve the needs of Gray's 6500 residents. Look at the one in South Portland and imagine that complex at the corner of the Bypass (Sorry Sue, it will always be the bypass).

And Hanniford which is strangely enough attracting all sorts of satellite development inquiries that are compatible with the established neighborhood.

Maybe I stand alone in my dissatisfaction with Council's unilateral land use policy making. Maybe most Gray residents approve of the direction the Town is growing, and I am the one out of step.

What's your opinion?

Thursday, September 20, 2007

This is Gray Maine calling

After being out of town for an extended trip, I checked in on the resident blogs to discover that a thermonuclear device must have detonated in Gray during my absence. Everybody seems to be gone….(echo, crickets). The garymaine, (excuse me) the graymaine blog has vanished, and now graymaine04039 has become members only? Did the Rock’em-Sock’em politicos masquerading as just everyday folks knock their own blocks off? Or are aspirations for the center Council chair driving certain other non-hate blogs underground?

It would appear that a gray agora is THE only gray agora left. Kinda sad.

We'll try to to editorize on future events without much rancor and hope some of the disenfranchised orphans in the blogosphere can find a safe haven to talk here the Agora.

This is Gray Maine calling...

Is anybody out there?


Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Precient Pork?

"For the same reason that the members of the State legislatures will be unlikely to attach themselves sufficiently to national objects, the members of the federal legislature will be likely to attach themselves too much to local objects."

-- James Madison (Federalist No. 47, 1 February 1788)

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Navigating by Jack Sparrow's Compass

As one of my posters gloated, the results are in and a narrow (120 votes) majority of Gray citizens voted to endorse the creation of Area 8 commercial district to accommodate a new Hannaford shopping complex.

While the voter turnout of 2300 was an encouraging display of civic participation, the results yielded some disturbing implications. Not that the nays lost (which I find to be unfortunate) but that the voter margin for the yeas was so small. A land use decision of this magnitude should have solicited a clear mandate: 65% or better, not a mere 120 votes.
What this election highlighted was the painful reality that Gray is still a divided community. As a town, we have no communal sense as to what kind of town we are and how we want to develop in the future. We could blame our collective dysfunction on the Council, who have cultivated the fine art of lousy salesmanship. Witness the number of citizen-led referendums in the past two years seeking to overturn Council decisions. Contrary to the conspiratorial theories, these referendums are spawned from all points of the political landscape and from the feeling of disenfranchisement that arises from a common perception that Council acts rashly and without forethought. Council needs to measure success not in the speed of its decisions but in the effectiveness of its public consensus-building.

Council may be a convenient target, but the citizens aren’t off the hook either. It appears that the good people of Gray are navigating by Captain Jack Sparrow’s compass. Rather than pointing north, the needle of this compass points in the direction of that thing your heart desires most. Like Wicked Jack, Gray residents are indecisive as to what kind of Town they want to live in. Indecision causes the compass needle to vacillate wildly, leading us on an irrational and tortuous course.

One moment we pledge to preserve the “rural character” of Gray (Gray Comprehensive Plan, 2003 ), but then we encourage sprawl , strip protective measures from our subdivision ordinances, and vilify our planning board. We talk about the sanctity of our existing residential neighborhoods, but then rezone them to commercial districts so we don’t have to drive an additional 15 minutes to get double coupons on Tide. We ache over the physical and economic denigration of our Village Center, but we site new commercial development far away from the Village Center and fail to provide the financial support to continue downtown revitalization. We all complain about traffic congestion, but we appaud traffic control strategies that will require us to install as many traffic lights as serve the North Windham strip.
Imagine what the future will bring. Where Hannaford goes, so goes Shaws ( and banks, and Supercuts, and Burger King, and etc). Since our existing residential neighborhoods are no longer sacrosanct, where will the new Shaws plaza be sited? How about Birchwood and Egypt Road?Great capture of the lake people, Raymond, and the commuters. Or how about Yarmouth Road where Mike Liberty wanted to build the new community? Lots of space for expansion, major traffic artery, close to the Village. Then there is always Lawrence Road or Dutton Hill Road- many new subdivisions there, and immediate if not deadly access to all major arteries. Coley Hill Road. Weymouth Road, Beaver Brook Road, the possibilities are endless.
Unlike our neighbors New Gloucester, Raymond, North Yarmouth, Cumberland we have no idea what kind of community we want to be when we grow up.

Unless we as a community make a solid decision on this issue, it will be made for us. And it will be irreversible.
Hello Beastie.

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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The New Fire Chief: A Question of Trust

It’s no secret that I am an admirer of the Gray Fire Rescue Department. I know many of them personally, and quite a few I call good friends. My admiration has led me to become a fire-rescue voyeur. I have a scanner in my kitchen to listen in on their calls and radio chatter. Often the calls at 3 AM wake me up, but lucky me, I get to roll over and resume my sleep while our volunteers have to throw their clothes on and dash out into the gloom, deferring concern over their day jobs until after the emergency is met.

In an era in which the ME generation has begot X and Y Gen impatience and self-absorption, the selflessness of the Gray Fire Rescue feels like an anachronism. There was a time, not long ago, when Americans understood and embraced sacrifice. When “supporting the troops” meant Victory gardens, buying war bonds, rationed butter, gas, meat, sugar, blackouts, rather than just a magnetic yellow ribbon on the back of the SUV.

In the wake of 911, many Americans seem to suffer from FAF (Firefighter Admiration Fatique). It’s been 6 years, enough already!

Not me.

I know that we in Gray have good fire facilities and lots of emergency equipment (much of it paid for by the volunteers themselves) , but I also know that we don’t have a Fire-Rescue Department without the volunteers. I know the precarious thread by which our volunteers continue to serve. The same pressures that limit our time affect them no less. But more is always demanded of our volunteers, more training, more certifications, more education, more drills, more emergency calls, more public service events.

So the last thing we as a community need to do is to dispirit the morale and undermine the efforts of the Gray Fire Rescue volunteers. And that is exactly what has happened.

Ignoring the stated wishes of Gray Fire Rescue Members Association, the Town Manager eschewed promoting from within and instead hired a professional firefighter from Florida as Gray’s new fire chief. Now the Manager likes to admit in a folksy way that she doesn’t know a hoseline from an ALS, and that is true...unfortunately. Yet somehow, she has the uncanny insight to be able to determine the type of leadership Gray Fire Rescue will require now and in the future.

To advise her selection, Ms. Cabana assembled a blue ribbon interview panel of non-fire lay people and one Fire Chief from a town outside of Gray’s mutual aid network and without any exposure to Gray’s culture or performance needs. What was conspicuously missing from this entire process was input from the Gray Fire Rescue membership. No Manager would hire a Code Enforcement Officer without including members from the ZBA on the interview panel , nor would one hire a Town Planner without input from the Planning Board . But wait, Ms. Cabana made such hires precisely without consulting the jurisdictional volunteer boards..

The Gray Fire Rescue Members Association did not wait for an invitation to comment on who should be the next Chief.. In keeping with tradition, the Gray members sent a letter to Ms. Cabana recommending their preferred candidate. BUT for the first time in 127 years, the Town’s Chief Executive Officer ignored the volunteer’s recommendation.

What a brilliant way to maintain volunteer morale. Lets look at Ms Cabana’s record in undermining department espirit d’corps:

1. Chief Barton dies in August 2006, leaving the department devastated and in need of immediate leadership. Ms. Cabana refuses to acknowledge and appoint any of the existing deputies as interim chief, resulting in lack of any supervision over full-time and part-time paid employees, and a disruption in unit cohesion.

2. While the department is administratively leaderless and off-balance Ms. Cabana oversees the dismantling of the Gray Dispatch Center and the immediate firing of its employees.

3. Stung by a successful citizen petition, Ms. Cabana signs an interim contract with Cumberland County.

4. Ms. Cabana takes over six months to name Deputy Bob Ryan as the acting Chief to provide some administrative leadership until she decides how to restaff the position.

5. Ms. Cabana doctors the explanation of the Dispatch Issue on the June referendum ballot so that only one side of the debate is presented. No mention of the lower quality of service provided by Cumberland is mentioned (and it is lower-I listen and have noted a significant reduction in communications reception and response) The $200,000 savings cited on the ballot is patently inaccurate.

6. Saved monies from the dispatch contract with Cumberland are diverted to the general fund rather than a portion being returned to the department budget for training, as promised by the by Council in October.

7. The Gray Fire Rescue members vote and send a recommendation to the Manager to appoint one of their own deputies in order to maintain the existing department culture and continuity of the leadership.

8. Despite public praise for the Acting Chief and in defiance of the members request, Ms. Cabana appoints a Chief from a paid professional department in Florida to provide leadership for a volunteer department.

Gray Fire Rescue volunteers are not just dispirited. They are angry. Many are asking why they have to put up with such disrespect after all these years. This department is at a more critical crossroads than Ms Cabana can imagine. That thread that volunteers suspend from is becoming overstretched. And we pay the price if it breaks.

Just for the record, Fire Chiefs from full-time paid departments tend to maneuver volunteer departments towards paid status incrementally over time.
Hang onto your wallets guys, its going to be an expensive ride.

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The Windhamization of Gray

I want to be excited about Hannaford coming to town, I really do.
But the more I look at this deal the more its beginning to look like a pig in a poke.

First question I have is why do we have to zone yet another area of strip commercial development in Gray? Do we not have strip commercial extending the entire length of Rte 100. First step in the Windhamization of Gray. In the rush to chase commercial tax dollars, we are selling ourselves short. Remember that Hannaford is a big prefab box that does not have a high taxable value, with most of the value in inventory that escapes the personal property tax. So where's the big payoff?

Second consideration: Hannaford does not wish to build on 26 to capture the Gray-New Gloucester market, the intent is to snag dollars from the touristas and the Oxford County commuters who have long plagued our town with choking traffic. After suffering for so long and paying so much to get the bypass in, now we'll shoot it in the foot by welcoming in a new logjam…yes there will be traffic lights and traffic at the very throat of the bypass Shaker Road intersection.

Why did we spend all that money to install a water line down Portland Road, if we are not going to funnel new business in that area? If we encourage business to locate anywhere but in the TIF district then, 1) tax dollars will have to be used to pay off the bonds rather than captured value, and 2) any resulting tax revenue will NOT be sheltered from the school funding formula for ten years. Talk about an uncoordinated and costly plan.

Why did we also spend all that money and time to do a Comprehensive Plan that specifically discouraged strip commercial from that portion of the Route 26 corridor, only to ignore the contractual wishes of the townspeople 2 years later. Did we not have over a year of Town meetings to solicit the wishes of the people? To blatantly override these wishes after pummeling everyone incessantly to participate negates the creditability of the Town government..dare I say it borders on tyranny. Tea anyone?

Afraid that we'll never get a date for the prom, Gray is willing to promise its virtue to the first bozo who asks. Is this the way we want our town to be?

I don't and that is why I am voting a resounding NO on July 31st.

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Sunday, March 04, 2007

Training Wheels...again

Every time I start becoming a believer in the presiding Council, they pull a move out of left field that leaves me wondering where the wiring got crossed. Jensen Baird is a fine law firm that has represented Gray adequately through the years, yet I do not necessarily object to their recent dismissal. Long term relationships can breed complacency.
Plus there were contentious differences between the Council and Bill Dale, often because the Council was displeased with the legal advice received (case law is such an annoyance when reforming policy). Something had to give.

What I cannot understand is replacing one firm with another that has dramatically less experience and depth in the municipal law field...especially when price is not an issue. Don't get me wrong, Monaghan Leahy is an excellent law firm. When it comes to corporate law and civil damages litigation, I want them in my corner. But their forte is not municipal law. Why were we not talking to outfits like Bernstein Shur that dominate this field and are deadly in the courtroom (if it ever gets that far) ?

The bigger question remains, why does the Council keep buying bicycles that we have to retrofit with training wheels?

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Switching Targets

It's a hard thing to accept a loss. But adults suck it up, learn from it and move onto the next item on the agenda, a little wiser and often a little poorer. We getting much poorer suing ourselves over Pennell. In all the talk of appeal, nobody has pointed out the procedural error made by the presiding judge that would warrant judicial review by the Maine Supreme Court. We are all deluded if we think that the MSC will reconsider any substantive matters of the case.

Therefore, let it go and begin negotiations with SAD15. The District doesn't want Pernell and you can bet that Baldacci's new super district will unload it faster than a live hand grenade.

If our collective blood lust is up and we need to tilt at other windmills, I suggest suing the Maine Turnpike Authority. Can you think of any other entity that has done the town more permanent harm than MTA? With no regard to the economic, physical, or cultural damages inflicted upon Gray, MTA has erected a barrier toll solely for the benefit of the L/A industrial parks. We all know that this action alone has created a situation where northbound truck traffic uses Rte 100 to avoid paying the toll...resulting in unusually heavy semi traffic through our downtown increasing congestion, noise, pollution, and erosion of the traditional village character. Despite resounding protests from our townspeople, MTA and its hired guns flatly deny such conditions exists. Kudos to Leo Credit, Chair of the GNGBA, for reviving this grievance and calling a spade a frigging shovel.

Exhibit 2: The Gray Bypass has been a very expensive band aid to an avoidable problem. Anybody who can read a map can readily see that the most direct way to channel Rte 26-bound traffic to and from the Turnpike is via Mayall Road. Rural, relatively flat, and overlying sand and gravel substratum, the Mayall Road option would have been an inexpensive and elegant solution to alleviating the incessant congestion at Exit 63 and dangerous breakdown lane backups on the Turnpike during peak hours. In addition, it would have given New Gloucester a Turnpike exit of its own for its industrial and commercially-zoned lands.

But then again, such a strategy would have undermined the MTA's beloved barrier toll and abrogated promises made by Paul Violette to L/A officials and legislators who would be otherwise unfriendly to maintaining the MTA charter.

DOT has been the unwitting handmaiden through this entire sorry saga. Although we citizens have heaped our ire on DOT representatives, the real culprits have been comfortably and anonymously resting at Riverside Street. Who paid for all of these unnecessary and marginally effective bypass improvements? Who continues to pay for a gridlock traffic condition that has seriously undermines the economic and cultural quality of our historic Village?

Exhibit 3: Little known fact. MTA is currently sealing off all turnarounds that permit emergency vehicles to reverse directions between the northbound and southbound lanes. This is a knee-jerk response to the jerk who caused the rush hour pileup on I-295 in Falmouth back in January.
The media spin is that shutting off these turnrounds protects public safety. Private translation: sealing the turnarounds eliminates MTA's liability exposure. Repercussions: Our fire and rescue units will have travel long distances to access various points of the turnpike as it bisects Gray, increasing response times and delaying rapid patient treatment and fire suppression. Oh, and the extra diesel and on-call costs expended keeping MTA safe from liability will be added to your property tax bill.

Given this mounting stack of evidence what jury would not convict?

Calculating the Costs

"It is a principle incorporated into the settled policy of America,that as peace is better than war, war is better than tribute."

-- James Madison (letter to the Dey of Algiers, August 1816)

So exactly how much tribute are you willing to pay the jihadists?