Beginning with Habitat


Comprehensive Planning

1. Guide | 2. Required Elements | 3. Topic Areas | 4. Plan Topic: Water Resources | 5. Plan Topic: Critical Natural Resources | 6. Plan Topic: Transportation | 7. Crafting a Future Land Use Plan | 8. Regional Coordination | 9. Example Comprehensive Plans

Crafting a Future Land Use Plan Using BwH

As stated in SPO's Comprehensive Planning: A Manual for Maine Communities, the strength of a community's land use plan lies:

Blanding's Turtle

First, in an understanding of the natural system, broken into its individual parts and reassembled, like layers of a cake, into a summary map of constraints and opportunities. Second, in an understanding of how human activity has settled on and used this landscape. Third, in decisions about where and how to direct future human activity, with due respect for what has been learned, and with broad participation of citizens of the town.

The ultimate goal of a comprehensive plan is the future land use plan. A future land use plan is intended to synthesize the elements of a comprehensive plan into a cohesive guide to realizing a community's vision. Through a future land use plan, your community will identify growth areas (where most future growth is to be encouraged), rural areas (where only a minority of future growth is to be encouraged), and critical resource areas (where maximum protection from development is to be afforded to natural resources, for ecological and/or economic reasons). In addition, through the future land use plan, your community will also identify current and proposed tools, both regulatory and non-regulatory, that your community intends to use to ensure the goals of your plan are achieved.

Beginning with Habitat (BwH) can certainly inform the conditions and trends phase of comprehensive plan work, but its real potential for Maine's future is to inform the future land use plan and public decisions regarding how best to direct growth in your community. BwH highlights areas of ecological significance, but at the same time highlights opportunities for responsible growth. By designing future growth plans within the framework of conservation priorities, a well-founded balance of future growth and conservation can be achieved. This theme is repeated throughout the BwH Toolbox as an approach to conserving declining plant and animal species, keeping common species common, and designing communities that will be prosperous and livable for generations to come.

For information on the required elements of a Future Land Use Plan, visit the Comprehensive Plan Review Criteria Rule.

Development Sprawl

In many communities, one of the most important issues often raised during the comprehensive planning process, in particular during the existing land use analyses and key issues research, is sprawl. Sprawl is an unplanned, haphazard pattern of development that spreads outward from town centers and inefficiently consumes rural land. Is housing and commercial development leapfrogging out of traditional areas of settlement and into previously rural areas? Is the community losing a traditional village and-countryside, or urban-rural pattern of settlement? If so, is the resulting "suburban" pattern what the community wants? Is it what present zoning requires? This should be one of the crucial debates in your plan. Many communities in Maine are experiencing sprawling development patterns and are "suburbanizing."

Most local zoning ordinances, because they codify suburban standards, make anything but the suburban pattern of development difficult to achieve. The tendency toward low-density suburban standards springs from both consumers and public policy. For many consumers, suburbia has the image of a home "in the country," or in a park-like setting, or otherwise removed from other people and surrounded with space for play, leisure, and quiet. It feels safe, a good place to raise children. And despite its dependency on the automobile, suburbia carries the prospect of freedom: to do what you want in your home and backyard, with a great deal of privacy.

For public policy, a zoning ordinance that prescribes a uniform, low-density suburban pattern of development is the easiest and least controversial to write. It treats most property owners alike: whether the property is located in a village or on an outlying farm, each is granted the right to develop a home on every so many acres. At first glance, this may seem like the fairest public policy.

But if the suburban pattern of development is the only pattern prescribed in a town's ordinances, the certain result is "sprawl." Sprawl consumes large chunks of rural lands, pushes development into fragile environments, gives rise to commercial strips and traffic congestion, and is expensive to serve. It is the clash of these bigger community issues against consumer preferences and perceptions of fairness among property owners that defines much of the debate in comprehensive plans.

The outcome of this fundamental debate will help shape your community's decisions to designate "rural" and "growth" areas in your town. In some cases, rural towns now experiencing growth have never had a "town center," or had only a very small center with no public water or sewer and limited capacity for growth. These communities have relied on larger towns in the region for centralized goods and services; their own development has been historically spread out at very low densities. The issue for these communities, as they receive more residential development, is whether a tighter, village pattern surrounded by rural land makes sense for the future; and if so, where should the village(s) or hamlet be? And if not, what steps can be taken so that the spread out pattern-which was acceptable when most of the land use was farm and forest rather than suburban lots with commuters-doesn't jeopardize the town's rural resources and character?

Strategies for Directing Growth

A variety of habitat-related tools and implementation strategies have been used by communities throughout Maine to direct growth, maintain rural areas, and protect critical resources. These tools have been compiled in the Beginning with Habitat (BwH) Toolbox and some specific strategies listed below. Only habitat-related land use tools have been included here. For a list of minimum policy and strategy requirements for a Future Land Use Plan, visit the Comprehensive Plan Review Criteria Rule.

Land Use Regulatory Tools

  • Increase minimum lot sizes in certain rural areas to promote traditional activities such as forestry and agriculture and discourage residential development in more remote areas of town. Proposals for down zoning, or decreasing the number of units possible per acreage, are often controversial and typically faced with opposition. It is important to balance such proposals with some kind of benefit such as reduced assessed value for the affected landowner. A note of caution: Often, political compromise around down zoning proposals results in 5-10 acre minimum lot size zoning. Lots of this still small size, however, can exacerbate habitat fragmentation and do little for maintaining traditional rural uses.
  • Require mandatory open space zoning (also known as conservation subdivisions) in rural areas, in which all subdivisions are required to retain a percentage of the original parcel (often 50% to 80%) as open space outside of the newly created lots. Designated open space areas should be responsive to public goals. Requirements for the designation of open space need to be clearly articulated and are best guided by an Open Space Plan.
  • In zoning provisions, combine low maximum density with a small maximum lot size in rural areas. For example, if the density in a rural area is set at one dwelling unit per 10 acres and the maximum lot size is one acre, then for every one-acre lot created, nine acres of land must be permanently protected through conservation easements or deed restrictions. This technique might make it easier for a farmer or woodlot owner to slice off an occasional lot while protecting the remaining land for farming or forestry.
  • If your town does not have zoning, a point system to determine where and how intensively development can occur in rural areas could be considered.

Land Protection Tools

  • Write an open space plan that prioritizes public open space objectives, informs future acquisition proposals, and sets a path forward for identifying public funding sources. The Comprehensive Plan should include the open space plan, or propose that such a plan be written.
  • Purchase land or purchase conservation easements on land considered especially important to the community's rural territory. Local funds, private funds (for example, through a land trust), and or state funds (for example, through the Land for Maine's Future Program) might be considered. See Financing Habitat Protection.
  • Use of "transfer of development rights" in the community, with rural areas serving as "sending" areas. Under a transfer of development rights program, landowners in rural areas (designated as "sending" areas) are able to sell credits for higher residential density to landowners in designated growth areas ("receiving" areas). This tool compensates rural landowners for reduced development potential while providing developers an incentive to concentrate development in growth areas. To work effectively, developers must see benefit for developing more densely in growth areas.

Tax Incentive Tools

Next: Regional Coordination for Natural Resources

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