Planning Sessions at the 2019 Maine Municipal Association Convention
This year, MAP was once again able to have a presence at the Maine Municipal Association (MMA) Annual Convention. Through our Affiliate Group status with MMA, they offer us a time slot during the convention to hold a membership meeting or other session (typically concurrent with and separate from their main conference agenda). For these sessions, we do not strictly focus on content for planners, but for any municipal official who might attend MMA and have an interest in planning issues. Previous years’ topics have included: the role of a planner, staffing approaches to municipal planning (town planner, regional, consultant, etc.), and Maine Subdivision Law. This year, the MAP session on October 3rd had a very broad and open topic: Land Use Ordinances & Planning, with the intent of leaving it up to the audience to ask specific questions about current issues and challenges. Though we only had an hour, we filled the room with more than 30 people, who came to hear from and ask questions of our planner panel: Christine Grimando, Acting Director of Portland’s Planning & Urban Development Department; Jeff Levine, current faculty member at MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning (formerly of the Portland Planning & Urban Development Department); and Matt Nazar, Augusta’s Director of Development Services.
Following introductions and a brief intro to planning in Maine (“101”) provided by Jeff, we heard about what some of the panelists are currently working on and what issues they are dealing with. Christine has recently seen through the in-house completion of Portland’s updated comprehensive plan, Portland’s Plan 2030, and is in the midst of the requisite updates and changes to the city’s 1000+ pages of land use code (an overwhelming task, as many planners can attest), while dealing with day-to-day planning issues like legalized marijuana, Form Based Code for neighborhoods, inclusionary zoning for affordable housing, and Portland’s hotel boom and need for workforce housing. In Augusta, Matt continues to address issues of density and how to help people understand it better, especially when local zoning in Maine (often a hybrid mix of Euclidean, performance based, and Form-based Code) very typically favors a low-density suburban model. Planners and residents alike need to work towards ensuring land use codes actually support what people want and envision for their community, and understanding the impacts of low versus high density. Matt noted the importance of a planner to help understand how all the pieces work together – planning is inextricably linked to economic development, housing, transportation, and more.
The discussion that followed was engaging, though our hour was up too soon. There was acknowledgement that planning is very much a political process and that trying to keep people informed is critical. It can feel very personal when people’s property, incomes and well-being are so impacted by land use regulation. We heard from an island community struggling with no zoning, a boilerplate comp plan, and a lack of planning support or ordinance resources, and being a small community, vulnerable to conflict of interest (planning board members are inevitably connected with or related to applicants!). We also heard from a community where a subdivision that was originally proposed as a conservation subdivision went through as a traditional subdivision, not due to a complicated process or too many regulatory hoops, but due to residents and neighbors being unsupportive – underscoring the critical nature of outreach and information sharing with residents to better address project opposition.
MAP’s session was held on the conference day which also had other sessions and speakers of planning interest:
Let’s Talk Progress: Tools that Help Communities Grow: The keynote lunch speaker was Joe Minicozzi from Urban3 (Asheville, TN) who some may have heard speak about his work helping communities understand how local tax policies are seriously aggravating and even causing the costs of sprawl. (If you haven’t heard Minicozzi yet, check out this article from Planetizen, https://www.planetizen.com/node/53922.)
ABCs of Economic Development: This session highlighted actions rural communities like East Millinocket and Dover-Foxcroft are taking to redevelop in the post-mill era. The session also included the need for citizen engagement, especially when dealing with contentious issues; the power of the “curbside appeal” of a community; issues of unsupportive planning boards or councils; and the importance of understanding the banking and financial perspective when it comes to financing development.
Regional Planning and Development Issues: Following MAP’s session was a panel on Regional Planning with planners Rob Melanson of Topsham and Judy East of Washington County Council of Governments. Their session included issues like how Maine communities are regionally sharing resources and costs, capacity limitations and willingness in relationships as drivers of regionalism, obstacles presented by the limited number of regional planning agencies, and resources for towns looking at regional solutions.
So at this year’s MMA Convention, MAP’s session was well received, and achieved our objectives for making sure planning is “in the mix” at the MMA Convention and that MAP continues to get exposure with non-planner municipal staff and volunteers. MAP will continue to have at least these small sessions at MMA. We always consider opportunities and our capacity to host sessions as part of the main conference agenda when possible. A big thank you to MMA staff for continuing to support MAP and supporting planning and the work that MAP does!
Amanda Bunker has been a planning consultant in Maine for over 25 years, a MAP Board member since 2014, and currently serves as the Maine Section Representative on the NNECAPA Executive Committee. Her municipal consulting work has included downtown planning, land use and master planning, open space planning, agricultural preservation planning, comprehensive planning, ordinance development, planning board training and staffing, and facilitation. Her consulting work is supplemented by volunteer experience as a planning board member, conservation commission member, land trust committee member, and comprehensive plan committee member. As a MAP Board member, Amanda has worked to coordinate numerous professional development events including Maine NNECAPA Conferences. Amanda holds a Master of Regional Planning and a Master of Landscape Architecture from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.