The drive down Route 117 south heading toward South Paris from Buckfield is vintage Maine. The landscape is spliced by rolling hills with older houses and quaint farms, white picket fences and an occasional lawn ornament, all neatly nestled along the Western Foothills along this part of Oxford County. It is a picturesque experience, the sense that time once stood still here, and is in no hurry to move beyond that. It is the treasure of life in Maine.
When the visitor or native arrives at the intersection pointing toward Route 26, either Hebron or Norway or Bethel, they are still caught up in the New England experience The older brick buildings in downtown Paris blend in nicely with the older wooden structures. There’s a store, a VFW hall, a small river. At the junction where Routes 117 and 118 converge, little do they realize their calming scenery is about to become any other city U.S.A.
It is not far from that intersection, near the railroad tracks where locomotives and passenger trains once traversed, where the character of a community shifts from beautiful to busy. It is here where the bucolic nature of a tree-laden terrace now competes with the concrete calamities of parking lots, bright lights and signs pointing to the fast-food restaurants, the gas stations or merely another strip mall.
The Paris Planning Board, and ultimately the Paris Board of Selectmen, face a daunting task. They will listen to citizens on Tuesday, Aug. 27, to ascertain whether a Family Dollar store should be built on a property that abuts the McLaughlin Gardens, a majestic anomaly caught amid the financial confluence where small town politics, economic survival and preservation clash. It is sure to be a firebrand type meeting, nothing of a surprise in South Paris but still something to take note.
A Family Dollar official told the planning board recently that his company wants to be a good citizen and does not want to be seen as a bad neighbor. Nevertheless, he maintains the site next to the McLaughlin Gardens is best suited for a store of this type.
We disagree. On any stretch of the road, mostly on the side opposite the gardens, there are several potential locations that would lend themselves to such a development. Among them, an old service station with garage doors; you can still see the letters for the station on the building. The current owner may not be in the mood to sell but that site is still a possibility.
How about a parking lot next to one of those fast-food outlets? There wouldn’t be a need to tear anything down there. There are other locations Family Dollar could find to be just as profitable, and those probably wouldn’t require a zoning variance. Indeed, they could build a new store just about anywhere else, and even tailor its design to blend in with Maine’s unique architecture. Imagine that. A major corporation sensitive to local concerns. Such a willingness to listen to citizens and not locate next to the gardens is the kind of public relations money just cannot buy.
At times, it seems as if the Select and Planning boards in Paris go out of their independent ways to agitate those who disagree with them. Meetings are often contentious, and both sides on an issue often harbor ill feelings toward the other.
This one is a no-brainer.
Over the past 50 years, America’s love affair with the automobile and the rush toward construction of mega highways transformed many cities – large and small – into busy incubators ripe with traffic congestion, pollution and urban sprawl. The latter has been considered by many urban planners as the devil in the details masked as economic development. All we have to show for it all is a depletion of viable farmland and a cry in the dark for a return to a simpler time. Even the once burgeoning suburbs are shrinking.
The people who oppose the Family Dollar aren’t what some refer to as tree-loving environmentalists. If they are, so be it. The trees that would be lost for this undertaking are worthy of being hugged. The individuals opposing the store are seeking to preserve the one thing that makes Maine attractive to visitors and those who consider living here. They want to capture its essence, to experience that sense of serenity, to inhale that sense of environmental relevance.
A recent lecturer at the Norway Memorial Library referred to preservation as “an economic development issue.” The notion of an enterprise that would bring large trucks inside a property and an immediate area already squeezed for room is not an economic development scenario. It is an ecologically disturbing one. It is, in its purest form, aesthetically incompatible with its immediate surroundings.
That drive from Buckfield to South Paris takes one from an appealing rural experience to a less desirable one. For the better part of a half to three quarters of a mile, that stretch of highway fits more the image of a small city struggling to find its way than it does part of a unique small town filled with charm and history.
This is a pivotal point in the South Paris community’s long-term viability, both architecturally and economiclly. The junction at Market Suare need not be the end of the innate uniqueness of the area. If not well thought out, a bad decision can also have a domino effect. A wrong calculation in planning could end up being a catalyst for even more problems ahead.
When the Paris Planning Board meets to gather public opinion, planning board members should be unwavering in their own opposition to the project. They should tell the developers that such a development does not belong at the doorstep of a historic and tranquil place that is a representative of all that is good about this place.
They should tell them the entire project belongs somewhere else, more suitably, back on the drawing board.
The Advertiser Democrat Editorial Board