This column is the second in a series of three articles submitted by the town of Waldoboro planning and development director regarding the ReThink, ReImagine, ReVitalize Waldoboro Project.

The town of Waldoboro’s visioning project will not have any public hearings. Public hearings are a necessary part of government decisions. However, public hearings are often either unattended or highly controversial. When I think of public hearings, I think of a single microphone facing a bank of tables in a large, empty feeling auditorium, and citizens with concerned faces and folded arms. By contrast, the community meetings of the ReThink, ReImagine, ReVitalize Waldoboro Project will be welcoming and engaging. Since no specific policy decision is being made at these meetings, citizens should not feel threatened, and policy champions should not feel obliged to defend specific efforts. This is the opportunity to improve communication between town officials and the public.

Each of the sessions will include several activities intended to raise more questions than can be answered. The point is to raise ideas and issues, not solve them … yet. Citizens will work in small groups to build a consensus on which ideas and issues are most common and important. It is vitally important that you, as a participant in this process, speak your mind on what is important to you for the future of Waldoboro. Then it is your job to truly listen to the concerns and ideas of others. Often in group discussions, especially during heated debates, most of us listen to the “other side” to determine how what “they” are saying can be discredited so that “they” can be defeated. Rather than focusing on what similarities might exist, most of us have already begun to think of an argumentative response.

For example, in 2006, Waldoboro considered amending its ordinance to disallow “big box” stores by setting a size limit on retail development. This policy question was brought to the Board of Selectmen through a petition. Shortly thereafter, a group formed in opposition to the proposal. Though there was some problem solving and give and take between the two groups, the relationship was largely oppositional. In the end, 58 percent of Waldoboro citizens at town meeting voted against the size cap, and 42 percent voted in favor of the size cap. There was a clear winner and a clear loser. The petition claimed that big box stores threatened “the viability of the existing economy” and “the special character of our town.” When folks are only left to vote yes or no on such a complex question, there are many options that are left out of consideration. A “yes or no” vote simply does not provide enough information for the community going forward. An alternative process could have resulted in less animosity and a better outcome for more people. Since the size cap has failed, are we to do nothing to control impacts that such a development might have on the community? Should we actively pursue Target, Home Depot and Best Buy to locate in Waldoboro? Could we plan for large scale retail to be located and developed so that it is attractive, and does not lead to “strip” development and traffic congestion? Fifty-eight percent voted against something. We do not know why. Would this group vote for something else?

In order to achieve a useful answer to these difficult questions, members of a community must participate before their voices are simplified into a “yes” or “no” vote. Most importantly, citizens must show up prepared to listen to the ideas and concerns of others, measure them against their own, and decide if there is a middle ground. The Waldoboro visioning process is about determining where there is middle ground around important ideas and issues. This activity will inform, not replace the rest of the democratic process. Please join us in transforming community relationships. Share your perspective. Listen to others. Try to find opportunity. Next week, this column will focus on how the town will move from vision to action, and preview some of the opportunities on the horizon.

Patrick Wright is planning and development director for the town of Waldoboro.