Perhaps spurred by fear in certain parts of Maine of Wal-Mart and its big-box ilk, a piece of flawed – yet “bipartisan” – legislation called the “Informed Growth Act” cleared the Maine Legislature last year.

The act makes big-box developments subject to a builder-funded “economic impact study” as a stipulation of local planning approval. The gist is communities should know what to expect before allowing a Borders within its borders, as it were.

Another apparent interpretation is the belief that if communities were “informed,” they wouldn’t consider a big-box in the first place. We’d bet our last dollar these studies – only available from a list of state-approved consultants – will focus on the potential negatives of big-box development, instead of any positives. This is unfair to certain communities, such as Lewiston-Auburn, who view big-box stores as key catalysts for economic growth.

A note about these consultants, too: most are out-of-state, including from such faraway places as Chicago and Austin, Texas. Only one Maine firm (with two members) is qualified, out of a total of eight, which could leave the bulk of these reports compiled by “experts” with nominal or nonexistent local knowledge.

These firms are likely quite qualified and diligent. But most likely lack in-depth knowledge and understanding of Maine, whose economic landscape is different than most places.

It belies common sense for a new store in Oxford, for example, to be slowed by a report from somebody in Illinois or Virginia. It makes even less sense to handcuff a developer by making them pay for this delay. Yet it is the law, and still has strong legislative support.

Sen. David Hastings, R-Fryeburg, however, has introduced an amendment to the Informed Growth Act to allow communities to opt out of the economic impact study, through referendum. It’s a common-sense compromise that will separate those cities and towns that are mixed or against big-box development, with those that embrace it.

A public hearing on the bill is scheduled for Jan. 23.

The only other option is repealing the bill, as the more suitable solution to lawmaker concerns was always to increase state support to communities for long-term planning. This is unlikely, though.

There are places in Maine where big-boxes are considered unwelcome and actually been chased away. A remarkable grass-roots effort in Damariscotta in 2005 defeated the construction of a Super Wal-Mart, and set a string of similar advocacy fires up and down the coast. In each case, the will of the community was represented. Although Damariscotta excluded big-boxes, other towns – such as Thomaston – went through the same debate and allowed the megastores.

The people spoke, which is impossible under the current law. Hastings’ amendment is sound, and should be adopted. Some communities don’t know what they should do, and need to be “informed.”

Others know quite well, and should be allowed to proceed without obstruction.

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