October 25, 2020

Topsham reviews ethics concerning designated planning board position

TOPSHAM — Town officials are reviewing whether the Topsham Development Inc., which supports economic development in town, should have a designated planning board member on its board.

A change was made in 2012 to the TDI bylaws that added a designated planning board seat to the board of directors according to Assistant Town Manager Mark Waltz. The town manager, town planner and economic and community development director are also designated members of the board, which must have at least nine members. Selectmen appoint the other board members who are residents or members of the town’s business community.

As some controversial projects have gone before the planning board recently, Waltz said the question was raised as to whether it is appropriate to have a planning board member sit on TDI. The non-profit corporation often advocates for projects the planning board is then responsible for reviewing objectively to determine if it meets the town’s rules.

For example, TDI took a position earlier this year against proposed plans for an Aroma Joe’s coffee shop at the corner of Main Street and Route 196, arguing it wasn’t in following with the town’s Main Street Village Plan or comprehensive plan. That project is still being reviewed by the planning board, deliberations that TDI member Don Spann has recused himself from due to a professional conflict of interest.

The planning board also expects soon to review a controversial zone change proposed by Crooker Construction, LLC so it can relocate its existing headquarters facility and batch plant near the intersection of Route 196 and I-295 in Topsham, to undeveloped land near the intersection of White House Crossing Road and Route 196. The proposal has generated several letters to the planning board from neighbors and residents opposing changing the suburban residential zone to one that allows industrial activities.

In the past, Waltz said the planning board member has dealt with any potential conflict of interest in his role on TDI by recusing himself from deliberations and votes on projects that may come before the planning board.

“We decided it is probably worth getting the town attorney’s opinion as to whether the recusal is sufficient, or whether there need to be some structural changes to the organizational documents of TDI,” Waltz said.

The selectmen recently granted Spann a leave of absence while the town decides if it wants to keep a planning board member on its TDI board.

“I have always recused myself when I felt there was a conflict or a potential conflict,” Spann said Wednesday of his time on the TDI board.

Spann has served as chair of the planning board for 15 years and as the chair of the TDI board for five or six years. He said he agrees with the town’s decision to review whether or not the TDI board should include a planning board member.

“It’s something that needs to be evaluated,” Spann said.

Spann said he requested a leave of absence on the TDI board while selectmen study their matter. He will continue his work on the planning board.

Waltz said he expects to have a legal opinion by selectmen’s Oct. 15 meeting so the issue could be resolved by the end of October.

“The town is very grateful for all of Don’s willingness to donate time to both boards,” Waltz said.

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