On the Road

BETHEL, MAINE--"There were plenty of comprehensive plans and 10-year plans in the USSR," declares Rick Whitney, owner of Maine Line Products, a wood-products manufacturer with 12 employees. "But did the citizens have their freedom?"

Whitney isn't ranting against some far-out threat of communism invading this rural town located 70 miles northwest of Portland. He's referring to those among his friends and neighbors who want the government to help control economic growth in the town, where he's lived for 22 years.

For Whitney, who oozes Yankee pride--right down to his L.L. Bean sweater (1980 vintage)--what's most vexing is that those he opposes should know that government stands as the sworn enemy of free enterprise. The others are, after all, entrepreneurs. "This town is positioned for explosive growth," argues Bob Laux, founder of Wild River Realty, a real estate firm. "But without a plan, there's nothing to stop someone from building whatever they like."

Laux is one of an increasing number of entrepreneurs who have been fighting for town-approved guidelines for growth, including some zoning restrictions. The debate has exposed a rift between veteran business owners and those who have arrived in the past few years, when an economic boom began. Laux, a member of the Comprehensive Plan Committee, moved in five years ago. Many of the newcomers fled communities where they'd seen small businesses crushed by giants like Wal-Mart. They view local government as their most effective protector.

More than a decade has passed since ski-mountain magnate Les Otten remade the nearby Sunday River ski area into one of the country's largest winter resorts, ultimately causing the population to quadruple on winter weekends. In the past three years more than 70 start-ups have sprouted up in the area to serve those visitors, says Robin Zinchuk, executive director of the Bethel Area Chamber of Commerce and owner of the Chapman Inn.

Few of Bethel's 2,300 citizens want to see their town lose its quaint Main Street, where stores display such indigenous inventory as moose-turd earrings. But not all agree that a comprehensive plan can solve the problem. Whether the town ever ratifies such a plan boils down to one issue: zoning. Traditionally, Bethel's land owners have railed against any sort of land restrictions, claiming that zoning laws arbitrarily devalue real estate holdings. Today the old guard vows to vote down a plan that unfairly restricts property owners in any way. "It's the dreaded Z word," says business owner Suzy Harrington. Adds native Don Feeney: "There are new people in town who wouldn't mind regulating everything. But they take something away from the Maine heritage I know."

Naturally, it's also possible that the younger generation of business owners knows all too well that in business, as in skiing, conditions change fast. Allies, like foes, emerge from unlikely places. "Some people have been here forever, and they think that everything can remain the same," says Patrice Beaudoin, who opened a wood-fire-pizza and pasta restaurant last year. "But this town is going to change, and we should be prepared."

In the latest round of wrangling, the newcomers seem to have jumped ahead. Last December the town voted to accept an $18,000 grant from the state to help pay for commissioning a plan, the final version of which would have to address zoning. "The town is slowly coming around," brags Laux. "After all, what good will our future growth be if we can't enjoy the way of life that attracted us here in the first place?"

Of course, some residents may never come around. Standing amid a clutter of wooden knickknacks--from back massagers to bird feeders --Whitney proclaims, "I'd rather risk losing my way of life and still have my freedom."


PATRICE BEAUDOIN, Matterhorn Wood Fire Pizza and Pasta, 6 Walkers Mills Rd., Bethel, ME 04217; 207-824-6836 32

BETHEL AREA CHAMBER OF COMMERCE, Robin Zinchuk, P.O. Box 439, Bethel, ME 04217; 207-824-2282 32

SUZY HARRINGTON, Roberts' Farm, 8 Emery Rd., Bethel, ME 04217; 207-824-2927 32

MAINE LINE PRODUCTS, Rick Whitney, P.O. Box 356, Bethel, ME 04217; 800-874-0484 32

WILD RIVER REALTY, Bob Laux, 2 Main St., P.O. Box 997, Bethel, ME 04217; 207-824-3999 32