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Tension grows in Cumberland ahead of vote on credit union contract zone

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Tension grows in Cumberland ahead of vote on credit union contract zone

Photo: strent
Atlantic Regional Federal Credit Union sent fliers to Cumberland residents and posted this sign urging them to approve the Town Council's decision to grant the credit union a contract zone for this Main Street property.

CUMBERLAND — Next week's vote on the fate of a Town Council-approved contract zone for a credit union on Main Street is polarizing the town.

Opponents of the Main Street business and its contract zone have erected signs and been outspoken at town meetings. A lawsuit has been filed by project neighbors against the town alleging the council's decision came after a faulty process.

Atlantic Regional Federal Credit Union, which hopes to begin Planning Board review of its proposed branch if the public validates the council's decision, has sent fliers to residents and posted a large sign on the former Chase Flower Shop property.

Proponent Deb Sloan, of Main Street, said she has sometimes felt unwelcome pressure from opponents when she speaks out. Sloan commented at Monday's Town Council meeting in support of the council's decision to approve the contract zone, and returned later to report that she'd been accosted in the hallway by a neighbor who called her and her opinions "ignorant."

Councilors said this wasn't the first complaint they'd heard. Though no formal complaints have been filed, police said Tuesday that they're aware of the escalating tensions, too.

It's no surprise that the issue has become emotional – many opponents, especially those living on Main Street, feel that recent zoning changes in the area are endangering their rights as residential property owners. Some feel that Main Street is being rezoned, piece by piece, without long-term planning. Some proponents say they're ready to see business return to the town's center, and are excited to see the dilapidated flower shop property become a thriving business again. Some are ready to see the tax base shift to business, giving homeowners a little relief.

Voters will decide the fate of the property June 9 in a citizen-initiated referendum. Voting no would overturn the council's approval of the contract zone. Voting yes would validate it and send the credit union's proposal to the Planning Board for site review. 

Not in my backyard

Some of the most outspoken residents opposed to the credit union and/or its contract zone have been the direct abutters, Michael Tardiff, Andrew Baca and Melissa Gattine.

Tardiff's property would be separated from the credit union's drive-through by a fence and landscaping; part of what he has been using as a garden in his backyard would become a parking lot. Credit union representatives have said they've worked with Tardiff to address his concerns, discussing which drive-through options would be more acceptable, changing their plans for ATM lighting, and offering him use of a portion of their land on which he could continue his private garden.

Baca and Gattine's property abuts the lot to the south, and is separated from the proposed financial institution by Farwell Avenue. Credit union officials said that Baca and Gattine's primary concerns initially surrounded parking and traffic, and said that some parking plans were rearranged to avoid using any of the family's property or the right-of-way in front of it.

Credit union officials have also gone through a traffic engineer's review, and have said their plans would actually improve traffic in that area, allowing a second outlet for post office customers as well as broadening Farwell Avenue and the turning radius onto it.

The physical plan changes, however, have not addressed the family's primary concern. Gattine said Tuesday that the real issue is contract zoning, and the fact that some residents feel the Town Council "is not listening to them."

"When we bought our house we understood what the zoning was and what exceptions were permissible," Gattine said. "This (credit union) was not permissible."

"I'd like to relook at why (the council) is choosing to do this here and now when we have (the Route 100 and Route 1 corridors) plus the Doane property," which was recently rezoned to allow mixed-use development, she said.

Gattine added her frustration that the council has recently approved three separate contract zones within an eighth of a mile of her home. "I'm concerned with what they're doing to change the nature of our neighborhood without a comprehensive process of looking at zoning," she said.

She called a committee recently formed to do just that for the town center area a step in the right direction.

Councilor Michael Perfetti, the lone voice of dissent in the 5-1-1 vote that approved the credit union contract zone, said in an e-mail this week that some residents have "missed (his) point" for opposing this contract zone; while he's not opposed to contract zones in all situations, he said he believes the town is "overusing (the tool of contract zoning) in a small area of town without the proper process."

It was Perfetti who proposed the Town Center Planning Committee, in hopes that residents from all over town could voice their thoughts on future development or non-development in that area without the pressure of an existing, hot-button proposal.

Perfetti added that his observation of Main Street, where he also lives, is that not everyone is opposed to the credit union because of the public policy issues surrounding contract zoning.

"I believe many just don't want change or business in that area," Perfetti said. "My feeling all along has been that that area is appropriate for these types of business, but we should have a more inclusive process as opposed to doing it one property at a time."

Bring it on

Linda Putnam, who also lives on Main Street, said that if the Chase Flower Shop were being replaced by a Rite Aid, she'd be "shouting just as loud."

And while she'd rather see a coffee shop or bakery there, she said the credit union would be a good fit for the neighborhood, which is why she'll vote yes on June 9.

Putnam said Tuesday that one of her biggest beefs with the campaign against the contract zone is a claim that Main Street is a residential neighborhood being targeted for commercial development. First, she said, "it's not a residential neighborhood." Second, she said, "it's not being targeted."

When you look at Main Street, Putnam said, there's a mix of homes, home businesses, public services, the library, post office, schools, Food Stop and a gas station.

"It's a nice mix," she said. "A mix like that is what makes the community a vital community. Not only that, it's a state-numbered highway."

"There are lots of opportunities to live in pure residential neighborhoods in Cumberland," Putnam said, "but to expect that on Main Street is asking too much."

Putnam said that anyone who has lived in town for more than 50 years remembers Main Street as a commercial area, and defended her position by saying that no one has proposed tearing down houses to make more business. "This is about keeping what we have," she said, turning the former flower shop business into another business, rather than letting the property stagnate.

Steve Sloan agreed that the credit union would be great for the area. "It would clean up what we presently have there, which is something that the community needs," he said.

Upset that his wife was met with angry criticism Monday and then followed home, Sloan said he's most frustrated that a few neighbors think they can decide what will happen at 327 Main St. 

"They can't," he said. "It's up to the voters."

Sarah Trent can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 108 or strent@theforecaster.net.