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Beginning with Habitat program helps steer smart growth

A recent cross-country ski outing got Conservation Director Sally Stockwell musing about land use and land use planning in Maine. This is adapted from a column written for GrowSmart Maine:

Last month, just as the dawn was breaking on the shortest day of the year, I clipped into my Nordic skis and went for a long ramble through the woods behind my house. I skied for nearly two hours, right from my back door, through a collection of protected town lands open to the public, private lands owned by neighbors also open to the public, and private lands I have requested and received permission to ski on. I was exploring an almost 900-acre forest in the middle of one of Greater Portland’s busy northerly towns. A town that has been transformed before my eyes over the past 30+ years, both with more development and more permanently protected land.

I feel so fortunate to have access to this backyard treasure, which particularly during this pandemic, has sustained and rejuvenated me on a regular basis, but I worry about its long-term future. Each year a new house or development eats around the edges and makes it harder for animals to find the food, shelter, and nesting/denning sites they need to raise the next generation. They sneak around and in-between the houses at night, traveling farther and farther along streams and across roads to find the resources they need, sometimes colliding with a car on their way. I’ve noticed the streams–refuge for our treasured eastern brook trout and sources of freshwater for our ponds and drinking water–are becoming more cloudy after each big rain, choked with sediment, fertilizers, and pesticides running off lawns and driveways upstream.

The pressure keeps mounting. In my hometown, many of our orchards and farms have been lost to house lots; the local Christmas tree farm is now called Christmas Creek Subdivision; and 50 senior homes are being built in the midst of what once was a landscape filled with field and forest. The town is adding a fifth day to our long-time four-day trash and recycling pick-up schedule because there are so many new homes it is taking too long to run the routes.

The pandemic has added a new twist. This year we saw housing sales across Maine jump by nearly 27% during September to November compared with last year, typically a slow time for house sales. The biggest jumps were in Washington (80%), Hancock (68%), Piscataquis (59%), Aroostook (54%), and Knox (50%) Counties (Portland Press Herald 12/22/2020). District foresters and realtors across the state report a surge in inquiries and purchases of both land and homes, often in the less populated parts of the state. In the unorganized towns of Maine, building permit applications are up 25% over last year (per Judy East, Executive Director of the Land Use Planning Commission).

Many of these places are not usually concerned about too much development or sprawl. That’s changing as more folks work from home, want to get out of their tiny apartments or small homes with small yards, away from COVID-19 crowds, and find solace in nature. I suspect demand will only increase in the future as more people can work remotely, seek a different lifestyle, or want to escape from the ravages of climate change, including excessive heat and intense and damaging sea storms.

Half-way through my ski, I saw fresh snowshoe tracks headed in the same direction I was going. As I skied atop the tracks, still watching for signs of hare, fox, otter, coyote, and deer, I wondered who was out so early like me, where they came from, and where they were going. A bit later, at the bottom of a hill, just before rounding a corner to follow a pathway along Mill Brook, I saw someone heading towards me. We both stopped and greeted one another, keeping our distance. I soon learned Luke was a refuge from New York City. He said he and his wife are renting a home behind the horse farm, have been there since last March with their four-year-old and ten-month-old, are working from home, have enrolled their daughter in a French preschool, and frequently spend time roaming the woods. He said the thought of being confined in their 900-square-foot apartment in NYC during the pandemic was just too much. He proudly noted that now his daughter can tell the difference between a yellow-bellied sapsucker and a pileated woodpecker just by size! He felt fortunate to be able to keep his job and work remotely. Just before we parted he remarked “I guess there are probably better places to live in the world, but I really can’t think of where that would be. We feel so lucky to have all this right out our back door!”

We are indeed lucky. But it hasn’t happened just by chance. This is the result of careful planning and concerted efforts on the part of the Town Manager, Town Council, local landowners, and local land trusts. Together, along with many volunteers, they have protected and connected hundreds of acres of farmland, forestland, wetland, and trails for the benefit of people, plants, fish, and wildlife. I am thankful for this each and every day.

How can more Maine communities make sure the things that draw people to them, connect them to place and community, and to the State of Maine overall will continue to provide the sustenance we all seek? How do we balance development, conservation, and livelihood? Land use planning is key. Being able to envision what one wants their town and region to look like, feel like, be like 25-50 years from now is vitally important.

Fortunately, the recent Climate Action Plan adopted by the Maine Climate Council, and supported by the Governor’s Office, has committed to reinvigorating the Municipal Planning program in Maine to help provide the technical expertise towns and regions need to reimagine the future of their communities, particularly in light of increasing demands for housing and changes related to a warming climate. Maine Audubon is working closely with GrowSmart Maine on legislation to push this along. For more information and resources on smart growth principles and practices, visit the GrowSmart Maine website.

In addition, Beginning with Habitat (a collaborative program among state and federal agencies and nonprofits) recently unveiled a new website full of species and climate change information, maps of high value habitats, informational resources, and guidance for how to create an open space plan, update a comprehensive plan, amend land use planning ordinances, and more. For more than 20 years, this program has been working with municipalities, land trusts, and private landowners to conserve Maine’s wildlife and natural communities and ensure these special places thrive for generations to come.

Maine Audubon has been a member of the steering committee since its inception in 2000, and in addition to recently helping update the website, is actively involved in updating the Beginning with Habitat maps with new information and format; reviewing and updating other outreach materials; updating our criteria for identifying and mapping Focus Areas of Statewide Ecological Significance; and preparing a 5-year Strategic Plan–including looking for opportunities to coordinate the Plan with Maine’s State Wildlife Action Plan and Climate Action Plan.

Luckily here in Maine there are lots of opportunities for community members and leaders to become involved in helping shape what the future holds. Don’t let it just happen to you so you wake up one day and wonder why you’ve lost your favorite farm or forest–get involved and help steer the ship! Promote smart growth principles and practices in your community.