Planner Profile: Elena Piekut
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Meet Elena Piekut, City Planner for City of Ellsworth:
HOW MANY YEARS IN PLANNING PROFESSION? 10
CURRENT JOB: Ellsworth City Planner
Tell us about your background
I’m from Effingham, NH, where my parents still live on the little homestead they built. At College of the Atlantic (COA) in Bar Harbor, I earned a BA in Human Ecology, or “the study of the relationships between humans and their built, natural, and social environments.” Between COA and other institutions, my coursework has ranged from physics and calculus to philosophy and Russian, from environmental law and economics to writing and literature, and from anthropology and field dendrology to architecture, land use planning, and oil painting studios. I’d still like to go to graduate school.
What led you into planning?
It does feel like I was led to planning. When I was 10, my hometown had no zoning, and a NASCAR-style racetrack was proposed in our rural residential neighborhood, abutting a State Forest and over primary recharge for NH’s largest stratified-drift aquifer. Other proposals—for spreading human sludge and a major solid waste facility—also came up around town, galvanizing a grassroots effort to adopt a zoning ordinance and found a nonprofit focused on protecting the Ossipee watershed and aquifer. With no experience, my father invested himself deeply in both efforts as a volunteer and soon after, a leader. From the first bitterly divided vote over emergency zoning through Master Plan workshops years later, I often tagged along. The timing was such that as I grew more aware of the world beyond me and my family, I was also gradually watching an entire citizen planning initiative unfold—and from the political dramas to the first time I saw a natural resource co-occurrence map, it was all pretty fascinating.
I later interned and worked for that nonprofit, coordinating water quality monitoring and classroom education programs as well as observing their successes in advocating groundwater protection ordinances to the towns of the watershed. Some time after graduating into the depths of the Great Recession, I found my first planning position as an assistant in Ellsworth. After three years watching and learning, I left for a short time with Kittery, and then spent six years in NH’s oldest and fastest-growing city, Dover, as Assistant City Planner and Zoning Administrator. I returned to Ellsworth in early 2021.
What is unique about planning in Maine?
Maine is a place of extremes: summer and winter economies; high tech and traditional industries; great wealth and deep poverty; empty houses and a housing crisis; left and right politics, home rule mixed with statewide referendums; small towns and cities up against vast forest and ocean; long histories and an overwhelmingly old, white demographic challenged by new people and ideas; it’s remote and isolating, yet worldly and an international destination. Much of Maine asks us to plan for all of these conditions at once. It’s easy to feel like planning in Maine is a sleepy version of something greater, but really, it’s a challenging setting! And many of the things I list above stand at a tipping point.
What is the most rewarding aspect of your work?
It’s satisfying when I can get someone else feeling excited, or at least relieved, through my own knowledge base and problem-solving. That can be as simple as helping a homeowner find a way to make an addition work, or as complex as uniting many themes and organizations to inspire a whole new project. Planners know that we do a lot of gathering, analysis, and synthesis—but we also do it out loud, on the fly, and often while teaching something at the same time. That’s a skill and a rush. It’s also just rewarding that I’ve turned a liberal arts education into a STEM profession, and that I continue to learn something every day.
What is the most challenging aspect of your work?
Lack of resources. This community is hungry for so many things and wants to feel good about itself and where it’s headed, but our staff, its capacity, and the Planning budget have all shrunk since I was here last—while the City’s population has grown 30% in 20 years. I got used to saying “no, you can’t do that” as a zoning administrator, but as the planner now it’s “no, we can’t do that right now.” My time has never felt so precious to me as it does this year, and there has never been so much I want to work on.
Tell us about your dream project – what kind of planning work would you like to be more involved with?
I’m excited about starting our first Comprehensive Plan since 2004. I’ve been daydreaming about exercises I could bring into school classrooms. But to my point about resources: the year I started planning was the year Maine lost the SPO. I would like to be more involved in developing our own resources and network—new planners need organizations like MAP as they figure out how to plan within Maine law and Maine structures.
What is your niche or main expertise?
I am glad I spent time in the weeds of zoning during a time of great growth and progressive experiments in Dover, as well as working on renewable energy policy efforts around NH. I always want to spend more time in ArcGIS, as I love the creative and analytical intersection of producing maps. Ethics in government, local agriculture, and the arts are all dear to me. I also really enjoy working with students and universities—it’s a two-way street of inspiration and validation.
Elena is the City Planner for the City of Ellsworth, Maine. Elena possess a bachelors in Human Ecology with coursework in architectural design, land use planning, conservation policy, and community development from the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor.