Open Space Planning
1. Why Plan for Open Space | 2. Importance of Being Pro-Active | 3. What is an Open Space Plan | 4. Open Space Planning Process | 5. Components of an Open Space Plan | 6. Using BwH in Open Space Plan Inventories | 7. Designating Local Focus Areas | 8. Commonly Raised Public Concerns | 9. Example Plans
Why Plan for Open Space: The story of a Maine town
Imagine the Town of Dirigo, it is a rural community situated approximately 12 miles from the nearest "hub town" in which its residents work, shop for groceries, or go to a movie. Historically, Dirigo was founded as a farming community and by the early twentieth century, witnessed the establishment of a few summer camp colonies on the shores of the town's three great ponds. Today, Dirigo is primarily a bedroom community populated largely by commuting professionals, but the town also supports a smattering of small service sector businesses along its main roads. In the past year, the town has added 50 new homes and has recently grown from having a population of 3,700 in the 1990's to just over 4,300 residents today. The number of housing units has increased from 1,700 to 2,200 during that same period. Much of the growth is happening in rural subdivisions not located within walking distance to town services. Young couples leaving the nearby "hub town" in search of lower property taxes, and retirees taking advantage of reasonable land prices in a rural setting have triggered most of this growth. Given the popularity of the rural lifestyle offered by Dirigo, and the recreational opportunities provided by the town's lakes, the population is expected to grow to 6,500 by 2030.
Residents are now witnessing ever-increasing demands for new town expenditures annually at town meeting and per-capita non-school related expenses have nearly doubled since the early 1990's. New subdivisions have cropped up on many former farm fields and woodlots. The residential growth, although adding to the overall assessed value in town, has triggered much of the new demands on town budgets. Concerns over growing property tax bills have resulted in long-time residents pushing selectmen to do something to alleviate the burden.
Dirigo just recently updated its comprehensive plan for the first time in ten years and although the plan identifies public interest in protecting the town's rural qualities and cherished natural resources, the committee could not come up with specific goals or detailed implementation strategies to help guide conservation of these resources. Implementation strategies simply suggest that local ordinances be brought up to state minimum guidelines and that the subdivision ordinance should include a "cluster" or "open space" design option. Few details regarding how such a provision would work were provided and no priorities for types or locations for open space were included in the plan's narrative. The Comprehensive Plan Committee closely examined options for expanding the tax base in hopes of alleviating pressure on residential property taxes. It also does a fairly thorough job in laying the groundwork for an economic development committee and assigns this future committee with developing an economic development plan for the town.
The changes Dirigo is experiencing, and the town's chosen approach to addressing these changes, is a very common scenario being played out throughout Maine. Towns, especially those within commuting distance of hub communities, are experiencing increased residential growth that is driving town costs and forcing limited town staff and volunteer boards to make significant planning decisions, all the time hearing from disgruntled residents struggling to keep up with their property tax bills. Not knowing how best to accommodate demands for new housing, or knowing what tools are available, towns often focus solely on economic development proposals in hopes of attracting businesses that will better balance the tax base. Meanwhile, the qualities of the town that could best attract the desired businesses are incrementally eroded by ad hoc, cookie-cutter residential development that continues to drive-up the costs associated with providing services and, in turn, makes the need for business development even more critical. This cycle cannot be broken unless communities are pro-active in their growth decisions in the early stages of experiencing the symptoms of residential sprawl.