Community Engagement in the Pandemic: Moosehead Regional Planning Project
The Land Use Planning Commission (LUPC) allowed Weyerhaeuser, an American timberland company, to terminate the Moosehead Lake Region Concept Plan (often called the Plum Creek Plan) in July of 2020, with the agreement that the company would hold off on proposing development or zoning changes while the Commission conducted regional planning. While in the midst of an unfolding pandemic, the Commission was, and remains, committed to broad community engagement in this process. The question became, how would LUPC accomplish a regional planning community engagement process during the pandemic?
It is hard to overstate the impact the original Plum Creek Plan had on the community’s vision for the future of the Moosehead Region. The 0.4 million-acre Plum Creek Plan was so large in scope, with up to 2,025 residential and short term housing units and ~390,000 acres in permanent conservation, it had the potential to transform the region long in to the future. Now, with the plan terminated, the community and stakeholders have an opportunity to decide where future development is appropriate and whether additional protections are needed.
So how was the Commission to convene the region’s residents, business owners, community representatives, and other stakeholders to determine a future vision in these pandemic times? With face-to-face meetings off the table last year, we relied on a combination of familiar and new methods to gauge general feelings.
- Good old-fashioned telephone calls with known community members and stakeholders (the region is lucky to have engaged and knowledgeable volunteers!) helped get us started. I always tried to end these calls by asking who else I should talk to and kept at it until the names started repeating themselves.
- We moved to virtual meetings with community and stakeholder groups, including organizations interested in economic development, forest management, and conservation.
- Last winter, we launched an ArcGIS Hub website and a survey using Survey 123 Connect to gather input. The survey allowed respondents to specify locations for their comments on a web map. This was helpful in synthesizing the 500+ comments.
As MAP members know from experience, some of the most productive community meetings involve not only providing information to the public and listening to local knowledge, ideas, and concerns, but also hearing the spontaneous conversations that occur. One person’s ideas will often influence others to speak up or lead the group to new topics. Was it possible to achieve some of that type of discussion during the pandemic?
We created a series of “Discussion Scenarios” covering potential zoning and policy options for the Moosehead Region, complete with maps and written descriptions. The scenarios represented a range of options supported by many conversations, emails, and survey responses and informed by previous community visioning and economic development work. We were interested in what folks liked or didn’t like, ways the scenarios could be re-combined or re-imagined, and anything that we may have missed completely.
Since the Discussion Scenarios were made public, we have held two in-person community meetings outdoors in Greenville and two virtual meetings. We received useful feedback at all four meetings. Additionally, we have received (and are still receiving!) many written comments on the Discussion Scenarios. This technique of presenting a range of options worked well to jump-start discussions and helped people move from general statements of value and concern to more targeted feedback. This outcome is probably not a surprise to anyone who has tried in vain to engage community members at the beginning stages of, say, ordinance development, only to be overwhelmed by comments once a draft ordinance is proposed. When there’s something concrete to consider, it’s often easier to engage.
The Commission is still squarely in the middle of its Moosehead Regional Planning Project, and our work with the community and stakeholders continues. We intend to present a draft proposal during another round of community meetings in the spring of 2022. If you would like to know more or participate, please visit our website.
Naomi Kirk-Lawlor, Acting Chief Planner, Land Use Planning Commission
Naomi has a background in geology and natural resource management and has worked for the LUPC for six years. She lives in Hallowell.