The Challenge of Comprehensive Planning in Maine

28 Jun 2016 10:04 PM | Maine Association of Planners (Administrator)

Two sessions on comprehensive plans were presented at Maine Association of Planners' (MAP) May 20, 2016 Annual Meeting and Conference in Waterville.

Our intention was to follow up and expand on a recent Northern New England Chapter of the American Planning Association (NNECAPA) session, in which the highest quality comprehensive plan (“comp plan”) adoption and implementation efforts by the City of Burlington, VT provided the headliner. Reflecting on their own cash strapped towns and cities, several Maine planners told us, in effect, “This ain’t Burlington!” While the sophistication and finish detail of that award-winning comp plan may provide inspiration to planners in some of Maine’s larger communities, other MAP members related to us their experiences in small communities as state and local resources for comp planning have dwindled.

Questions Presented: How does the value of comprehensive planning or the meaning of informed growth translate in a community with very tightly constrained human and financial resources? If a local comp plan has been adopted is the community able to implement the plan? What strategies are working? What changes are needed?

A morning session featured some lively debate on the relative utility of tools available for the implementation of comp plans. Panelists included municipal and regional planners as well as representatives from the consultant and former state planning ranks. An experienced planner in the audience offered the following unabashed praise: “This is the most refreshing discussion on comprehensive planning that I have heard in years.” Thank you--it’s an acquired taste!

One particularly interesting exchange made me wonder if a personality test is not at the heart of debates over statutory requirements for local comp plans, as provided for in Chapter 187 of the Growth Management Act and the related Comprehensive Plan Review Criteria Rule that is the measuring stick used by the Municipal Planning Assistance Program (“MPAP”) in assessing completeness and of comp plans and consistency with the Act.

Two planners told the audience that the best practice in many cases may be to “ignore the statute,” but it was quickly revealed they themselves had done so in very different ways. The first planner had set aside time over the course of a few weeks to “fill in the blanks,” such as demographic information, required for a finding of consistency with the Act by the MPAP--using the data, materials and technical assistance provided for free by MPAP. The second had spent years sometimes fighting and sometimes literally ignoring the requirements and challenged the logic of requiring time-sensitive demographic information in a work product intended to last 10-12 years at a minimum.

The first planner’s community had clearly benefitted by the completion of a comp plan and the updated finding of consistency, including enhanced eligibility for funding assistance on grant projects. The second planner, however, had at least equaled the output of any Maine municipality over the same time period in the implementation of the “unfinished” local comp plan, attracting new employers and outside funds for large infrastructure projects without wrapping up those last few pesky chapters of the local comp plan. Underpinning exchanges like these was an informative discussion and it is my hope and expectation that many of us left the room with a better understanding of what success might look like in future amendments to the Growth Management Act or in other changes to put comp planning on surer footing in Maine.

A third planner noted how helpful it had been for her to marshal that same statutory requirement for the inclusion of exhaustive demographic detail in comp plans. In her community, it seems, the presence of those experiencing persistent poverty might otherwise have been edited out of the plan.

The afternoon session featured an example of a community mustering innovation and resources for a comp planning effort that might turn heads even in the Green Mountain State. And that would be Maine’s own City of Lewiston, with its relatively large and extraordinarily diverse population, a budget of approximately $80,000 and the graphic design expertise of consulting firm Town Planning & Urban Design Collaborative (TPUDC), the same group hired to prepare Burlington’s comp plan. The comp plan that is nearing completion in Lewiston (and eventual adoption by the City Council, hopefully) could provide new benchmark in the level of public participation in the drafting of a comp plan and accessibility of the finished product.

What is unique about the plan itself is the crisp graphical presentation of data and the prevalence of “plain English” throughout the text. The very readability of the document has brought about new challenges. An unusually large number of volunteer board members, business owners and residents are actually reading it! There has been a prolonged and steady flow of public comment on the comp plan, making it difficult to round up and synthesize so many contributions.

Another feature of the Lewiston comp plan process, as described by City Planner Dave Hediger, was a well-run, well-attended series of charrettes for residents and others who feel a connection to the City. Each full-day event focused on a specific theme and provided many open time blocks for participants to drop in and have their say. More information on the Lewiston Comprehensive Plan: http://www.lewistonmaine.gov/index.aspx?nid=603

Judy East, Executive Director of the Washington County Council of Governments (WCCOG), provided a perfect counterpoint to the report from Lewiston. She has created and is effectively marketing a suite of web-based, customized mapping tools for use by the many small, understaffed communities in their region. Judy was quick to credit Tora Johnson of the University of Maine at Machias for the GIS backbone of the site and funding assistance provided through GROWashington-Aroostook, a regional planning project. Please check out WCCOG’s online mapping module here: www.wccog.net/local-comprehensive-planning.htm

Judy’s presentation was also notable for the bumper crop of grants she and Planner Crystal Hitchings have brought in for current projects. Sources of funds include the Brownfields program, the Genesis Foundation and even the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). Who knew that AARP funds a grant program that can be used to support local comp plan efforts? It took someone like Judy to figure that out!

Phil Carey, Interim Director of the MPAP also joined the afternoon panel. Phil provided an up-to-date rundown of the comp planning tools MPAP maintains as well as examples of state-administered funding assistance for which the rules and eligibility requirements provide incentives for creating and updating local comp plans current. Phil also provided a reminder that access to resource packets for comp planning projects is provided on MPAP’s site: http://www.maine.gov/dacf/municipalplanning/comp_plans/planning_data.shtml

--James P. Francomano, Director Planning & Community Development Department, City of Rockport


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