Friday, May 7, 2021

Before the memory fades: Zoning, a distasteful idea in the 1960s and 1970s

By Walter Lunt

Windham is going through yet another growth spurt. For decades, planners and town leaders have initiated zoning regulations designed to stimulate or slow down development in certain areas. Throughout, one overarching goal has been to preserve the town’s rural character. Baby-boomers say, “Here we go again, it’s history repeating itself.” They refer to the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s, when population and commercial growth skyrocketed. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say there are similarities.

Early in the decade of the 1960s, the town was reeling from a steadily growing population and crowded schools. Concern over rising property taxes was also growing. By 1969, in their annual report, the town’s Selectmen wrote, “Our population is increasing very rapidly … percentagewise we are the fastest growing community in Greater Portland … along with this growth, comes the need for zoning, newer schools, sewage treatment and more public services.” Further, citizens were clamoring for a modern library, additional street lighting, water line extensions, increased police and fire protection, and new public roads. Zoning, however, was an unpopular notion among much of the populace. A familiar refrain at the time was, “Nobody’s going to tell me what I can do with my own property.”

A view is shown of North Windham in the 1970s.
Residents call it 'citification.'
Also, attempts were under way to broaden the town’s tax base by encouraging and assisting business and industrial firms to locate in Windham. The Windham Development Commission, however, reported that their efforts were hampered by the lack of a land use ordinance (zoning), Chairman Richard Clark said Windham’s lack of zoning prohibited efforts to secure financial assistance from an area building fund to develop an industrial park in South Windham.

“…we urge the community to consider adoption of some land use ordinances to provide businesses the protection that they so often insist upon before making a substantial investment with a community. We would like to attempt to preserve Windham’s many natural resources and characteristics and at the same time, broaden our tax base to cope with the influences of urbanization…”

To illustrate the extent, and the urgency, of the town’s swelling immigration problem, Windham’s population at the close of World War II was around 2,000 souls; by 1960, the number tripled to nearly 6,000, and 7,000 a decade later in 1970.

The number of housing starts were equally astonishing during the brief period. The town recorded 41 units (dwellings) in 1966; by 1972, the number had exploded to 279.

Despite what town officials considered to be a critical need, Windhamites continued to oppose any type of zoning ordinance, even though many complained of “suburbanization” and of “outsiders” coming into town trying to tell the locals how to run their town. By 1973, a 10-year struggle to adopt zoning had been turned down as many times by voters. It seemed the town was, as one resident put it, “progressing into its past.” In its 1971 annual report to the town, the Windham Planning Board stated flatly, “We no longer can afford the luxury of looking the other way.”

At a special town meeting in November 1972, voters passed, by the narrowest of margins – 34 votes, what was described as a “mild” land use ordinance. Opponents, with a lingering distaste for zoning of any kind, went right to work with petitions demanding a new vote. In balloting the following June, voters repealed the four-month-old ordinance by a vote of 954 to 688. A newly empaneled zoning board of appeals was immediately forced out of business.

“Windham doesn’t move forward – it always takes a step backward,” commented one disgusted zoning proponent.

A side note, in that same June election, Windham voted in favor of building a new fire station in North Windham, approved the use of absentee ballots in municipal elections, and increased membership on the town select board from three to five.

Following the last in a long string of defeats for zoning, the Windham Planning Board went into double overtime (meeting, at times, twice weekly); a newly empaneled Town Council (which had replaced the selectmen form of government), in an effort to slow growth, passed a moratorium on all new subdivisions. An updated comprehensive plan was in the works, along with a re-drafted land use ordinance. In June 1976, it was passed, probably due, in part, to what residents were calling the “citification” of North Windham.

Now, in the 2000s, problems and issues similar to those of the early 1970s are plaguing residents and town officials once again. In the words of a forgotten historian, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but sometimes it sure does rhyme.” <

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