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Maine Coastal Destination Ogunquit Wants to Defend Town's
 Unique Character by Banning Restaurant Chains
By Jenna Russell, The Boston Globe
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

Sep. 21, 2005 - OGUNQUIT, Maine -- Tourists throng to this tiny town for the ocean-scented air, the stunning beach, and the quaint downtown. Many here believe the crowds are also drawn by something else: the absence of Starbucks, Dunkin' Donuts, and McDonald's.

Determined to defend the town's unique character against fast-moving forces of homogenization, some residents have proposed an aggressive new strategy. If voters approve their plan on Nov. 8, Ogunquit will ban "formula" restaurants -- Burger King, Applebee's, Olive Garden, and the like -- that use identical menus and architecture in every location.

The plan was proposed during unprecedented commercial development in southern Maine that has sparked debate about what makes the state that calls itself Vacationland attractive to outsiders.

Ogunquit, a coastal resort 70 miles north of Boston with just 1,200 year-round residents, would become the second Maine town to ban restaurant chains in less than two years. Voters in neighboring York approved a similar new rule last spring.

"People aren't going to pay $200 a night to come to a place that's just like the place they just left," said Mary Breen, a town native who owns Bread & Roses, the cozy bakery on Main Street famous for its cinnamon butter puffs. "That sameness is creeping in everywhere."

Ogunquit boasts a beachside dairy bar where sunburned families line up for soft-serve cones; a rustic lobster pound with a fireplace and picnic tables, where diners pick their own lobsters; and a restaurant in an 18th-century farmhouse once ranked by Gourmet magazine as one of the best in the country, where for $41.95 diners can order two roasted quail with fennel and saffron couscous.

Local officials said no chains have tried to set up shop in recent memory, probably because the offerings are many and the year-round population so small.

Not everyone has embraced the proposed ban, which was placed on the ballot after Breen collected signatures from 125 residents. Three of five local Planning Board members oppose it, though the board chairman, who runs a bed and breakfast, said he supports it.

Some residents say it is unfair to block one kind of business. Others say they would not be bothered by fast-food restaurants that resemble those in Freeport, the Maine shopping mecca where strict zoning guidelines require chain outlets to affect a rustic, Down East look.

Drive-through windows are already banned in Ogunquit, and under the existing design review process, town officials can regulate the size of signs, style of architecture, and building materials.

"I'm not sure what people are afraid of," said Karen Maxwell, a former selectman who has a real estate business and opposes the proposed ban.

A small but growing number of towns across the country have enacted bans on so-called formula restaurants, beginning with wealthy, picturesque Carmel-by-the-Sea, Calif., in the 1980s. Last year, Bristol, R.I., set limits in its historic downtown, and in May, voters in Randolph, Mass., authorized the creation of a fast-food-free downtown business district.

In Maine, concern about the changing landscape has been growing, said Jonathan Lockman, planning director for the Southern Maine Regional Planning Commission and a consultant to the planning board in Ogunquit.

"Any time a Dunkin' Donuts is going to open, it leads to spirited talk about whether it's a good thing or a bad thing," said Lockman, whose tenure as planning director in Bar Harbor included a heated controversy over a Popeyes chicken outlet that opened and quickly closed in the town center.

Still, some locals say Ogunquit is changing in subtle ways that may increase the appetite for chains. The population has grown 25 percent since 1990, as more summer people have opted to live here full-time.

With more residents who commute to work in Boston, there is a larger population that expects to see "a Starbucks on every corner," said Charles Waite, chairman of the Board of Selectmen.

Other longtime residents acknowledged being irked by newcomers who move to Ogunquit and then try to stop the town's growth.

"The mentality is, the last one in closes the door," Maxwell said.

Breen, who employs more than 30 people at her bakery during the peak tourist season, sees reasons besides architecture to shut the door on big chains. "The money we earn here stays in our community, and there's no big corporation pulling the puppet strings," she said. "We have two sets of mothers and daughters who work here -- I can't see that happening at" a chain restaurant.

Existing businesses, like the Ben & Jerry's counter in the local drugstore, would be grandfathered if the ban were passed.

Miroslava Syarova, a college student from Bulgaria who has worked as a waitress in Ogunquit for three summers, said chain restaurants would divert customers from local restaurants that offer healthier, homemade food.

She could think of an exception, however.

"Starbucks would be OK," she said. "I love coffee."

At Charles Hairdresser, a landmark salon that once coiffed Bette Davis and other summer theater stars, two generations of stylists disagreed on the restaurant ban. Richard Miller, 60, the current owner, said the rule will help keep the town charming.

His father, 88-year-old Charles Miller, lives in nearby Wells, home of numerous fast-food options, and said the opposition is rooted in snobbishness.

"What would it hurt?" he asked. "I like to go to Bonanza, and I have to drive all the way to Sanford."


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