News Feature

Originally published in Castine Patriot, October 10, 2013
Consultant pulls back role in economic development, cites lack of CED support
“I’m wasting the taxpayers’ money”

Sue Walsh, economic development consultant for Castine

Sue Walsh is in her second year as an economic development consultant for Castine.

Photo by Anne Berleant Order prints of selected PBP photos.

by Anne Berleant

Economic development consultant Sue Walsh is stepping back from her consultancy role, she announced at the October 4 Community and Economic Development committee meeting. She will no longer hold set office hours, but will be available for special projects “once you determine what they are.”

“I am very discouraged on the way…the committee has come out not only not supporting economic development but outright against it,” she said.

Walsh’s announcement ignited a lengthy and heated debate among members on the committee’s direction, goals, and plans—or lack thereof.

“You’ve spent four months talking about what the group will work on [and] there’s been no decision,” Walsh said. “I’m wasting taxpayers’ money.”

“You have to look at what we were hit with,” Chairman Rick Armstrong said, referring to a recent special town meeting on proposed zoning amendments and public debate over a new proposed downtown streetscape. “[The committee] is trying to decide where we’re headed [at the] policy level.”

Is the CED committee a “think tank” or do members need to participate in a more hands-on manner? Was it wrong for it to take a public stand against proposed zoning amendments that were nearly all shot down at a September 23 special town meeting? Should it be geared toward boosting the seasonal, tourist business or toward building a year-round economy?

“I think this group is like the bridge to nowhere,” said member Pat Bishop.

Scott Vogell declared the CED “had no business” discussing and taking a stand on the proposed zoning amendments.

“We can’t seem to get solidarity to do anything…I don’t know why I’m sitting here,” he said.

Vogell wants the committee to carry out its ideas, as he did when working to create a plan to renovate the public restrooms at the town dock. This turned into a warrant article to be part of the November 5 election.

“Every committee I’ve been on, the committee does the leg work along with the ‘think tank’ part,” he said.

Tony Politano repeated his suggestion from the last meeting—agreed to at that time by members—of creating subcommittees, with one CED member participating, to carry out the committee’s plans.

“You will not get the buy in from the community if you’re not doing the work,” Walsh said. “This group needs to do the work, with my guidance and assistance.”

Walsh is in her second year as consultant to the town and, since the CED was formed last April, has been supervised by the committee rather than the board of selectmen, as she previously had been—a step Walsh described as “unusual.”

The committee, Walsh said, has delegated secretarial tasks to her, like minute taking, that could be filled by someone at a lower rate, has not given her the support “needed to support this position,” nor treated her with “the respect I’ve earned with my experience and education.”

Walsh said she had asked for a definition of her job from the committee but was never given one. Members Julie Van der Graaf and Jane Irving countered that Walsh had not done what she was asked to do, specifically citing the planning of an event in Castine in conjunction with the Maine Lighthouse Challenge.

“I made the calls,” said Walsh, adding that such an event is planned two or three years in advance.

Walsh also provides one-on-one counseling for local business owners, who “ask for my assistance in confidence,” so can’t be listed on the detailed report of her activities the committee asked her to provide.

“I’ve sought her out several times,” said member Mark Sawyer, co-owner of MarKel’s Bake House.

“We don’t need to be micromanaging,” said Vogell. “If we ask her to do it, she does it.”

Special town meeting fallout

The main public output of the CED has been to recommend against proposed zoning amendments—unless they restricted a current use—at the September 23 special town meeting. Chairman Rick Armstrong had stated the proposed amendments lacked clear definition.

“You went on record as a committee saying ‘no’ to everything,” said Anne Farnham, asking who was in charge of this town. “Never enough ‘definition’—when does definition come? To me, as a [member of the] general citizenry, you have shot yourselves in the foot.”

“We’ve got to do something with zoning,” Armstrong said. He suggested using a draft land use table created by Walsh as a starting point.

Last January, Walsh submitted the draft land use table to selectmen for their review. The table separated commercial uses into specific categories like arts, crafts and music studios; animal hospitals; animal boarding facilities; research and development facilities and technical centers; garden centers; professional offices; fitness centers; and light manufacturing facilities.

A complaint of the CED and citizens on the recently considered zoning amendments was that commercial uses were lumped together as “commercial uses—other.”

Politano suggested using the results of a community-wide survey created by Walsh in conjunction with her draft land use table to approach zoning recommendations. “[Walsh’s] role [then] becomes as a real consultant.”

Van der Graaf asked that the committee’s focus turn to the “big picture,” which is getting people into town. “We have a problem with selling Castine,” she said.

“When you look at the big picture—past tourism—aren’t we trying to grow a year-round, thriving community?” countered member Mark Sawyer. “Growing families, the school.”

Liz Parish echoed that thought, suggesting the committee “look at what in zoning could make this more a year-round thriving community.”

The phrase “year-round, thriving community” is part of the vision statement of the comprehensive plan adopted in 2010.

Armstrong said the role of the CED toward zoning was to “come up with a set of criteria” for “those who know better.”

“We should not rewrite the zoning ordinance,” he said, but “give input.”

This input would be given to “the planning board and the others,” Armstrong said. Or, “become a petition—we petition to put it on the warrant.”

In other business, plans to install wireless service at the town dock are moving forward, despite that it’s too late for the committee to place a warrant article on the November 5 election ballot. The cost is roughly estimated at $25,000.

Armstrong thanked Walsh, stating: “Your candidness has done wonders for the committee and [its] path forward.”