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Maine towns are trying to undo planning decisions of the past

Ed Easter, board president, and Gabe Perkins, executive director, of Inland Woods + Trails walk the site of the Rumford Community Forest in December, 2022.
Courtesy of Inland Woods + Trails
via the BDN
Ed Easter, board president, and Gabe Perkins, executive director, of Inland Woods + Trails walk the site of the Rumford Community Forest in December, 2022. 

A 446-acre forest in western Maine was once permitted to become a 300-unit housing subdivision. Instead, two years ago, the land was bought by conservationists and preserved.

But the creation of the Rumford Community Forest in the midst of a statewide housing crisis has not been decried as “not-in-my-backyard,” or NIMBY, activism. Rather, the project is being heralded as an example of “smart growth,” a trendy principle cities and towns are starting to embrace as they strive to meet Maine’s lofty goal of at least 76,000 new homes by 2030.

“This is the next part of the evolution of managing growth,” Evan Richert, who directed Maine’s now-defunct state planning office from 1995 to 2002, said. “It creates great places while preserving outlying lands for things that can only be in such places: farming, forestry and resource production.”

“Smart growth” is an approach to community planning that aims to cull the housing sprawl that defined the last half of the 1900s. For decades, rural communities took an “any growth anywhere” approach to housing development that has ended up costing them, Nancy Smith, the executive director of GrowSmart Maine, said.

“It’s awfully tempting to say ‘we’ll just take anything’ as rural communities lose their population,” Smith said. “But we need to ensure communities develop and grow in ways that make sense for the long term.”

All around Maine, sprawl has strained municipal budgets and increased local and state taxes. It has cost communities socially and environmentally, too. By 2040, more than 50,000 acres of Maine farmland may be lost to urban and low-density conversion, according to the American Farmland Trust. That will put pressure on regional food systems, hurt farmers and worsen the effects of climate change, Julia Freedgood, a senior fellow with the farmland trust, said.

“We [farmers] are already experiencing climate pressures which we have no control over, but we can control the idea of land use,” Rhiannon Hampson, a dairy farmer who is also the state director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said. “We had this idea that rural America was just this vast and endless space. Now we’re recognizing that we need to do a better job with population growth.”

“Smart growth” looks to strike a balance. While Maine’s farmland needs protection, affordable housing is a real need in rural communities, too. That’s the case in Rumford, where officials are shifting their approach to in-fill development. This will make better use of public funds, maintain the town’s rural character and conserve its rural areas, George O’Keefe, the town’s economic development director, said.

“It is possible within our built environment to meet demand,” O’Keefe said. “We would welcome a 300-unit subdivision, but we’re very intentional about siting. Maybe more so than before.”

The subdivision that is now the community forest was approved by a Rumford planning board just before the 2008 recession, O’Keefe said, which is partly what tanked the project. It was also a classic example of sprawl, he said, located nowhere near any existing settlements or municipal utilities. What’s more, it’s likely that the 300 units would have been second homes rather than affordable housing, Gabe Perkins, the executive director of Inland Woods + Trails, said.

Other rural communities are also rethinking planning decisions of the past. That effort will get a boost with a new bill passed by the Legislature last week that will promote “smart growth” planning principles by rewriting Maine’s laws around the comprehensive planning process.

The bill, backed by GrowSmart Maine, defines more clearly what a “rural” or “downtown” area is, makes data collection easier for towns and stresses the importance of community engagement in creating comprehensive plans. Developers, planners and Maine municipalities alike agree the comprehensive plan process is overdue for a revision, and several testified in support of the bill. Richert thinks it’s a good update to existing growth management laws.

Ideally, Smith said, embracing “smart growth” would not only preserve Maine’s rural regions, it would streamline the development process and mitigate “NIMBYism” by requiring towns to have hard conversations about where to direct growth before housing is proposed.

“We want to be discovered, we want people to come here,” Smith said. “We just have to manage it.”

This story appears through a content partnership with the Bangor Daily News.