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

BwH Highlighted Topic: Critical Natural Resources

State Goal:

Least Tern with Chick

To protect the State's other critical natural resources, including without limitation, wetlands, wildlife and fisheries habitat, sand dunes, shorelands, scenic vistas, and unique natural areas.

Legislative Requirement:

The Act requires that each comprehensive plan include an inventory and analysis of:

Significant or critical natural resources, such as wetlands, wildlife and fisheries habitats, significant plant habitats, coastal islands, sand dunes, scenic areas, shorelands, heritage coastal areas as defined under Title 5, section 3316, and unique natural areas.

The Act further requires that each comprehensive plan, as part of its implementation strategy:

Ensure that its land use policies and ordinances are consistent with applicable state law regarding critical natural resources. A municipality or multi-municipal region, if authorized to enact ordinances, may adopt ordinances more stringent than applicable state law.

Conditions & Trends:

Beginning with Habitat (BwH) Map 2 High Value Plant and Animal Habitats, Map 3 Undeveloped Habitat Blocks, and Map 7 Wetland Characterization will all assist your community in collecting conditions and trends information regarding critical natural resources. Minimum conditions and trends data requirements can be found in the Comprehensive Plan Review Criteria Rule.

Map 2 High Value Plant and Animal Habitats includes known rare, threatened, or endangered animal occurrence locations; rare, threatened or endangered plant occurrences; rare or exemplary natural community locations; Essential Habitats and Significant Wildlife Habitats; Atlantic salmon habitat; and impervious surfaces. Some, but not all, of these occurrences and habitats receive a level of protection under State laws.

Map 3 Undeveloped Habitat Blocks highlights the remaining large undeveloped blocks of relatively undisturbed habitats. Although these features are not a regulated habitat type, they often provide the best opportunity for municipalities to plan for meaningful habitat conservation providing multiple habitat functions able to keep common species common into the foreseeable future.

Map 7 Wetland Characterization highlights potential wetland functions and values likely to be performed by local wetland features. Having this additional understanding of the services that wetlands provide to your community may better inform decisions regarding where additional local wetland protections may be appropriate.

Additionally, the Regional Map highlights the important elements of Maps 1-3: significant surface waters, rare species occurrences, significant habitat types, unusual natural communities, and remaining undeveloped blocks of habitat at a regional scale that includes lands within all neighboring towns. The Regional Map also depicts Focus Areas of Statewide Ecological Significance. Focus Areas are, simply put, those regions which based on a convergence of multiple high value habitats and species occurrences, have been highlighted as important areas for conservation by state and federal biologists.

These maps and the combination of these resource datasets will provide your committee with a comprehensive understanding of important habitat and critical natural resource occurrences within town borders and will assist with the designation of growth, rural, and critical resource areas.

Analyses & Key Issues:

To best identify the key issues that relate to habitats and critical natural resources in your town, consider the following questions during committee review efforts.

  • Based on local knowledge of your town how complete do the Beginning with Habitat datasets appear to be? Should there be future local efforts to supplement the information available from Federal and state sources using the knowledge of local experts?
  • Are land use patterns, or changes in land ownership, threatening any of the critical natural resources shown on these maps? Are formerly large undeveloped habitat blocks being broken up into lots for individual ownership?
  • *Are existing regulations sufficient to protect the community's critical natural resources threatened by development, overuse, or other activities? Does review of development activity by Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) under the Natural Resources Protection Act (NRPA) give sufficient protection to identified critical natural resources? What local regulations and efforts exist? Should local efforts- either additional regulation or acquisition of sensitive lands- be sought to supplement state laws?
  • *Are local shoreland zone standards consistent with state guidelines and with the standards on adjacent shorelands in neighboring towns? Could additional increased protections above minimum standards better protect your towns critical natural resources?
  • *What non-regulatory measures can the community take to protect critical natural resources? Are there opportunities to partner with local or regional advocacy groups? Does your town have a Conservation Commission? Is there a local or regional land trust, watershed group, or conservation organization that your town can partner with to develop non-regulatory measures such as education and outreach, land protection or land management efforts?
  • *Is there current regional cooperation or planning underway to protect shared critical natural resources? Is there a local or regional organization, such as a Conservation Commission, lake association, or a land trust, which can serve as a monitor of critical natural resources? How would cooperation with neighboring municipalities, with which natural resources are shared, advance protection of resources? Conversely, will a failure to cooperate jeopardize resources?
  • *In what other areas will protection of critical natural resources advance comprehensive plan policies (e.g. water resources, economy, recreation, agriculture, and forestry, etc.)?


The conservation planning concepts below can help guide your committee's development of policies relating to critical natural resources. Rules of thumb to consider include:

  • Maintain a variety of habitats to support plants and wildlife. This will assure diversity in natural communities and help to maintain opportunity for most plants and animals native to your town.
  • Preserve large tracts of land for healthy wildlife populations and to keep common species common.
  • Link habitats (both terrestrial and aquatic) to one another. Travel corridors, although not a substitute for unbroken blocks of habitat, allow for movement of animals and prevent populations from becoming isolated and ultimately leading to localized extinctions.

Possible policies drawn from these concepts, and from the planning committee's answers to the analysis and identification of key issues, might include policies:

  • *To conserve critical natural resources in the community.
  • To discourage fragmenting of large blocks of undeveloped land in rural areas. This is especially important where the large blocks buffer embedded significant habitats, rare species, or rare or exemplary natural communities.
  • To preserve natural linkages and travel corridors between habitats. This is not only important for both terrestrial wildlife, but also aquatic species often impacted by poorly installed culverts and other crossing structures.
  • To identify ample rural lands for conservation of wildlife habitat and other critical natural resources, while allowing sufficient room for development in designated growth areas away from these resources.
  • *To coordinate with neighboring communities and regional and state resource agencies to protect shared critical natural resources. Consider joint agreements with neighboring towns to establish common standards, joint protection, or even joint ownership of a shared critical natural resource.

Policies such as these lay a foundation for managing critical resources locally. To provide specific guidance, local policies also may want to address specific resources individually. The plan should include separate policies on plant and wildlife habitat, coastal islands, wetlands, and shoreland areas.


Your town may find that merely being consistent with state laws does not fulfill local goals and policies. Municipalities are encouraged to develop strategies that go beyond the state laws. Strategies, might include: (specific examples of many of these strategies can be found in the Tools and Financing Habitat Protection sections.)

  • Sponsor an inventory of wetlands and other critical natural resources to obtain more comprehensive information than is currently available from existing federal and state sources.
  • *Amend local shoreland zone standards to meet current state guidelines. Also consider augmenting shoreland zone standards and extending the town's resource protection provisions beyond shoreland areas to other areas with identified critical natural resources.
  • *Designate critical natural resources as Critical Resource Areas in the Future Land Use Plan. Areas with concentrations of significant habitat types, and large undeveloped habitat blocks, especially those containing other critical natural resources can be included in Critical Resource Areas and development restricted.
  • Identify specific land use measures or other tools when critical natural resources occur within areas identified as growth areas. At times, critical natural resources will fall in areas identified for growth.
  • *Through local land use ordinances, require subdivision or non-residential property developers to look for and identify critical natural resources that may be on site and to take appropriate measures to protect those resources, including but not limited to, modification of the proposed site design, construction timing, and/or extent of excavation.
  • Require developers to work with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (MDIFW), Maine Natural Areas Program (MNAP) and the Beginning with Habitat (BwH) Program to best minimize effects of proposed development in critical or unique areas.
  • Allow open space zoning / conservation subdivisions with dedicated open space encompassing wildlife habitats and other important resources. For clustering to be effective, the types of land to be included in open space must be clearly defined, and mechanisms should encourage that one project's open space connect with other open space in the area.
  • Require that development be set back from critical natural resources. BwH and MDIFW regional staff can assist with setback suggestions specific to certain habitat types.
  • Develop a critical natural resources overlay zone as part of a zoning ordinance. (An overlay zone is a type of zoning district that is superimposed on other zoning districts to protect a particular resource. It doesn't replace the underlying zoning district, but it does add requirements for proposed developments.) Specific land use requirements contained in the overlay zone would be triggered when a development is proposed near a critical natural resource (see Wildlife Habitat Overlay District for an example).
  • *Through local land use ordinances, require the planning board (or other designated review authority) to incorporate maps and information provided by the Maine Beginning with Habitat program into their review process.
  • *Adopt natural resource protection practices and standards for construction and maintenance of public roads and properties and require their implementation by the community's officials, employees, and contractors. Street design and maintenance practices can have direct consequences for wildlife habitat. Standards should maintain existing habitat values and minimize barriers to species travel.
  • *Initiate and/or participate in interlocal and/or regional planning, management, and/or regulatory efforts around shared critical natural resource.
  • Appoint a Conservation Commission to monitor and advocate for protection of the community's critical natural resources.
  • *Pursue public/private partnerships to protect critical natural resources such as through purchase of land or easements from willing seller. Land trusts have experience in land protection efforts and can be important partners for communities.
  • *Distribute or make available information to those living in or near critical natural resources about applicable local, state, or federal regulations.

Many of these implementation strategies are multipurpose. In working to preserve wildlife habitat and other critical natural resources, goals relating to outdoor recreation, protection of water resources and protection of farm and forest land also will be advanced.

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