Over the past year, the Maine Association of Planners (MAP) and GrowSmart Maine have been engaging planners, as well as municipal board members and decision-makers, on the issue of comprehensive plans (“comp plans”) and how they are working for Maine communities. This effort came together to try to better understand the current challenges communities face in developing and implementing their comprehensive plans.
At both MAP’s Annual Meeting and Conference in May 2016, and the Maine Municipal Association (MMA) Convention in October 2016, MAP and GrowSmart partnered to hold panel discussions in which planners and planning board or comp plan committee members shared insights, ideas, and sometimes “war stories” from their recent comp plan experiences. The resulting panel and audience discussions have been informative, and this article will share some of what has been learned so far.
The MAP Conference panel sessions posed questions on how communities get through the comp plan process and subsequent implementation, as well as what resources there are for planning and implementation. Panelists included a range of planning perspectives, including town planners, planning consultants, regional planners, and state planners. The MAP sessions were summarized in MAP’s Front Page article, The Challenge of Comprehensive Planning in Maine from July 2016.
The MMA Convention panel similarly discussed ‘what happens after the comp plan is completed’, how can towns ‘own the process’, and what resources there are for comp planning. Panelists at MMA represented “citizen planners” (planning board, comp plan/implementation committee, and council perspectives), as well as regional planning and planning consultant perspectives. At sessions for MAP and MMA, many audience members also added their own astute comments on what they heard as well as what similar experiences or insights they had.
Facilitating the discussion of current challenges for comp plans has become particularly important given the significant changes over the past decade and longer. On top of the significant impact of national economic and housing downturns since the early 2000’s, dramatic changes to the Maine law surrounding the State review of comp plans around 2007, the “dismantling” of the former Maine State Planning Office in 2011, and the continued cuts and elimination of grant funding to support planning and implementation have created a whole new set of challenges for comp plans that is seems the planning community is finally prepared to fully discuss and evaluate.
As communities across Maine struggle with the frustration of dwindling local and state resources for comp plan development and implementation, and even just seeing the value of a comp plan (e.g. what good is growth management if there is no growth), it is time for the planning community to revisit and rethink how we will approach comp plans moving forward. Interestingly, despite the challenges and dwindling resources, the state Municipal Planning Assistance Program office notes that there has not been a large drop in the number of comp plans being submitted on a yearly basis. Some towns are motivated by the remaining “incentives” at the state level such as requirements that a municipality have a current state comp plan consistency finding to be eligible for certain grants. Some are simply open to the notion that comp plans can, in fact, be a valuable tool in visioning and directing their community’s future. All are subject to frustration with the length of time and amount of effort needed even to update a town’s comp plan.
Throughout these discussions, there appeared to be an overarching theme to the challenges Maine communities face in creating, updating and implementing comp plans: in many ways, it still comes back to rural versus urban, or resources versus no resources. Some planners have remarked how the model comp plans and public outreach processes that seem to be most touted now are difficult to translate for smaller, rural Maine communities; it can be difficult to imagine how to achieve such planning without the funds to support consultants or extensive public outreach efforts. In small, rural communities, there are often not enough volunteers for a committee and there are no planning staff, and certainly the requirements of growth management incites the question of a comp plan’s purpose. Larger urban or suburban communities face different challenges, no less significant; the need to involve and appeal to a more diverse range of community interests, the continuous pull of other local planning or development priorities (both in terms of time invested and funding), and certainly the impacts of growth (which usually have regional implications).
Success Stories from the MMA Session
The communities of Gardiner, Falmouth, and of Washington County were represented in the MMA session’s discussion, bringing stories of how these towns successfully navigated their recent comp plan process and are dealing with implementing their plans. Gardiner has so far enjoyed a good amount of success in implementation due to the number and diversity of community members who were involved during the plan development stage. Public participation during the planning stage was also echoed as critical to Washington County communities, whose planning efforts were often driven by interest in accessing funding for moving specific initiatives or projects forward (e.g. grant eligibility requirements).
Though Gardiner can speak to a fair amount of success in transitioning into implementation, they noted struggles with being constantly diverted from comp plan implementation to the “hot topic of the month”, as well as the need to educate new community members or new council members about the plan. Both Gardiner and Falmouth have an implementation committee; Falmouth’s committee, the Long Range Planning Advisory Committee, attributes implementation success to its clear role as an “implement of the town council”, recommending implementation priorities to the council and reporting to the council on progress and actions.
During audience discussion several other communities noted some of their lessons learned: involve the “nay-sayers” in the community from the start of the planning process and get their buy-in; try to distill planning outcomes to the most important goals or objectives for the community, create focus with planning “sound bites”. The issue of community members becoming overwhelmed or exhausted by the comp plan process came up in discussion (and was similarly discussed at the MAP sessions). This appears to be a challenge to which communities of all size are susceptible. Suggestions included not getting bogged down in data crunching and inventorying, finding local “specialists” or assistance to take on specific sections of the comp plan (could include regional planning agencies or area college students), and dividing up sections of the comp plan amongst subcommittees or other town groups to work on and bring back to the planning committee.
Perhaps the biggest take-home message is reflected in how Gardiner, Falmouth, and other communities have found success in their implementation efforts: successful and timely implementation depends largely on good community outreach and participation during the comp plan’s development. When your community members have been involved in putting together the plan, they “own” the outcome and are supportive (or at least aware) of projects to be funded and implemented.
Insights and discussions from the comp plan sessions seem to indicate a growing trend for towns to “own the process,” find ways to adapt the comp plan process, and also create a final plan that meets its needs. Overall, this speaks to how communities and planners are looking to “shake off the old” and embrace new, creative approaches to comp planning, in order to find success given the current fiscal and regulatory realities.
At the MAP session last spring, it seems that several Maine communities have sought to avoid getting stuck in the same old “formula” of developing or updating a comp plan that will pass state review. It was noted that there are certain required sections or planning elements, but they are not required to have equal treatment or priority for each town. The state’s required planning elements (e.g. land use, economy, natural resources, housing, etc.) should also not be seen as a set of boundaries for a comp plan but just as a minimum – communities may find there are other needs that should be addressed in their comp plan.
Communities can sometimes feel overwhelmed by getting through just the required planning elements, or even that certain elements are less relevant to them (rural towns may struggle with finding appropriate strategies for economy or housing). Yet panelists at both the MAP and MMA sessions attested to how towns or community members, after first resisting the need to include all the planning elements, typically came out of the process confessing a new appreciation of the unexpected and meaningful benefit of going through it all. At the MMA session, Gardiner spoke to their experience of going through the Orton Family Foundation’s Community Heart & Soul™ process and how this unique and intensive community planning process enhanced their comp plan process; they focused on creating a plan for their community, not for managing growth, and their creative and thorough community outreach, both broad-based and targeted, was the means to that end.
Falmouth emphasized that allocating work and plan development to committee volunteers and not town staff (or a consultant, in communities that don’t have planning staff) is also an important part of creating community ownership of the comp plan – this can apply to non-committee members participating in the planning, individuals or groups that have a more vested interest in specific aspects of the plan.
Ultimately, reflecting on these sessions tends to lead to these “take-homes” for comprehensive plans in Maine:
(1) When it comes to writing or updating a comp plan, each town must endeavor to create a public process and ultimately develop a comp plan that is uniquely their own – which is very much achievable within the construct of the state’s requirements of the Growth Management Act. Do what’s needed and best for your own town, make it meaningful to your community, and make sure the vision and actions will lead you to protect what’s important and bring about positive change (or growth as the case may be).
(2) Lessons learned from successful comp plan processes all point toward the tremendous importance of community participation. Although it represents the bulk of the time and effort needed for a comp plan process, community participation is ultimately what determines the value and success of a comp plan and its implementation. It can be challenging not to get really overwhelmed or bogged down in public participation, but skimping on the necessary public input only creates the likelihood for public resistance when the plan is ready to be adopted or implemented.
(3) When it comes to implementing a comp plan, resources are often scarce, progress can at times be slow, but perhaps we all need to consider that, in the words of one veteran planning consultant, the mission is not to implement a comp plan, but to create the vision and chart the course for long-term implementation. We all strive for that feeling of “checking off boxes”, but in the context of Maine’s fiscal realities, communities need to continue to focus on positive achievements (big or small) that don’t break backs or budgets.
Through all of this year’s discussions, the question that has not yet been fully vetted is: Is the Growth Management Act and its requirements for state review appropriate for all Maine towns? Criticisms tend to stem from the fact that there are dwindling resources to develop and implement comp plans, and there are few communities in Maine these days that actually have growth pressures – as we all know, many towns are bearing the burden of continued loss of population and jobs. Still, these recent comp plan discussions have revealed Maine’s planning community continues to rethink and revitalize how we approach comp planning and learn to adapt to the current environment.
It is the hope of both MAP and GrowSmart Maine to continue to learn more from Maine communities about their comp plan challenges and insights, and ultimately to help shepherd in any support and changes needed for comp planning in Maine. For now, perhaps helping to develop a better system for planners and communities to learn from each other about what works and what doesn’t will better serve to create success and even save Maine towns time and money.
--Amanda Bunker, Land Use and Community Planning Consultant, Maine Association of Planners Executive Board