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
The Open Space Planning Process
Open space plans can and do take many forms depending upon the needs and resources of the individual community. The following can be used as a guide to assist the process as an open space plan is developed in your town. There is no one best model of an open space plan as they are truly specific to local landscape condition and priorities. References to a variety of example open space plans are provided at the end of the Open Space Planning section.
An open space plan is best completed by local residents who know their community, and care about their community's future. Open space planning committee representation should be broad and include when possible: elected officials (town councilor or selectperson), local citizens (especially large landowners), a conservation commission member, a planning board member, a recreation commission member, a school board member, a local land trust board member, an economic development committee member, and local developers and realtors. Towns that have professional staff will certainly want to include their town planner and recreation director.
Typical technical assistance often includes GIS consultants to prepare maps, a planning consultant to suggest strategies, a landscape architect or similar to provide scenic inventory assistance, ecological consultants to assist with resource inventories, recreation planning consultants if your plan is to include an assessment of active recreation needs, and public meeting facilitators. However, many towns that do not have professional staff or significant monetary resources available to dedicate to open space plans produce effective open space plans using local volunteers who have experience in the above disciplines. Beginning with Habitat (BwH) staff are also available to assist were needed.
The best and most successful plans are those that take public input throughout the process from the widest variety of stakeholders and incorporate the greatest cross-section of community interests. However, it is important to have a strong leader to direct the planning process to keep things moving forward. It is easy for a committee to fall into the trap of doing its work without reporting on progress regularly to the public and elected officials. This often results in plan failure in the final stages. Keep meetings open, well advertised, and always have an agenda and minutes that are circulated to town leadership.
Setting clear goals up front will help set the direction for open space plan work to proceed and can help determine the format of the plan itself by dividing it into topics or themes based on the goals. Goals should be determined based on local comprehensive plan objectives and local citizen input. Some examples of wildlife habitat oriented goals might include:
- Maintain a functional network of connected conservation lands that also provide recreational opportunities.
- Provide accessible conservation land and trail connections in each neighborhood.
- Protect rare species habitat and rare and exemplary natural communities critical to maintaining the town's biodiversity.
- Create a vision for conservation that will guide future development decisions and minimize uncertainty for developers and landowners alike.
- Provide access to water resources for a variety of users at multiple locations.
Once open space plan goals are determined, outlining objectives will provide the strategies necessary to achieve plan goals by identifying the necessary actions for plan implementation. For instance, if you are considering example Goal 1 above, what information do you need to first analyze the current state of your town's progress to date in piecing together a "network of connected conservation lands"? An objective may be to:
a. Inventory and map conserved lands within the town including privately held conservation easements, town owned forestland and open space, and any state or federally held protected lands.
BwH Map 3 provides a good starting point for addressing this objective, but is no substitute for local information available through the Assessor's office. Once local information is incorporated onto a single map, the next logical step may be to:
b. Identify remaining blocks of undeveloped habitat that support the greatest number of native species and connections between habitat blocks that allow for habitat connectivity.
The BwH Map 3 Undeveloped Habitat Blocks provides a good starting point for determining where there is opportunity to protect large contiguous blocks of forest likely to harbor most species native to your community and for identifying likely paths animals use to travel between one undeveloped block and another. A good rule of thumb when estimating likely habitat connections is to look for those areas where undeveloped habitat block edges are in close proximity to one another on either side of the dividing road; where development density is light (spaces between houses >500 feet); and where a good portion of the land in between existing development has tree and shrub cover where species can move without disturbance from light pollution and have cover from outdoor pets and other predators. Reviewing Map 3 side by side with aerial photo coverage provided in your BwH package helps to visualize likely connections and woody cover conditions. The next objective could then be:
c. Develop a sketch plan of existing unfragmented blocks of habitat and their corridor connections within town to guide conservation efforts ("conservation blueprint") and suggest a mixed "toolbox" of strategies that could help to avoid and minimize further fragmentation of these areas as the town grows.
Work necessary to complete the first part of this objective may be as straight forward as sketching polygons that encompass linked blocks of undeveloped habitat. Using the aerial photo and local knowledge of recent development activity will allow the committee to best refine the BwH undeveloped habitat block boundaries. Editing based on local knowledge will help to avoid inadvertently including new residential development within these sketched planning areas. Once this "conservation blueprint" sketch plan is complete, strategies to help avoid and minimize future fragmentation of these areas can be identified. Several tools that address potential strategies can be found in the Tools section of this site.
The next component of Goal 1 to be addressed is an assessment of potential recreational opportunities that could be provided as a secondary benefit of habitat protection. A well-conceived open space plan identifies possible user groups up front and involves representatives of these groups throughout the process. User groups can provide a strong voice of advocacy at town meetings, and often include community members who do not typically come forward if the issue is solely framed as an "environmental" concern.
User groups including local hunting and fishing associations, professional Maine guides, ATV clubs, snowmobile associations, Audubon chapters, mountain bike enthusiasts, and scouting organizations can all provide feedback regarding where existing trails are located, where new trails could be built or enhanced, and which parcels are key in protecting habitat, favorite hunting grounds, trout streams, and other user group interests.
In the example plans attached you will find a broad scope of goals and objectives that can be considered in an open space plan.
Methods to Solicit Public Input
There are several methods that have been successfully used to solicit public input during the open space planning process. Your town may want to consider using more than one of these approaches to best collect a wide cross section of thoughts from your community.
Many open space planning committees elect to develop a survey that is distributed to community residents. A public opinion survey used to identify local open space plan priorities can be as simple as the following:
1. How important are the following open space objectives for (town)? Please rate each of the following according to their importance to you. (1=very important, 2=somewhat important, 3=low importance, 4=not important/disagree)
a. Protect the water quality in (town's) lakes, ponds and streams for people and fisheries and wildlife.
b. Maintain active farmlands.
c. Increase connectivity between conservation properties, creating blocks of contiguous conservation land and connected/protected trails and open space corridors.
d. Preserve large areas of forest for recreation and wildlife habitat.
e. Encourage land conservation in rural zones to limit sprawl and encourage growth in growth zones.
f. Work with land owners to protect identified scenic viewpoints and viewsheds.
g. Provide information to landowners on conservation options, including current use tax programs, conservation easements, and estate planning.
h. Leave a legacy of parks, open spaces, and natural lands for our children and grandchildren.
i. Protect cultural and historic sites.
j. Create a system of trails (both motorized and non-motorized) in town, linking to surrounding communities where possible.
k. Work with neighboring towns on regional open space opportunities.
l. Create playgrounds and neighborhood green spaces where children can play safely.
m. Develop water access sites (both for motorized and hand carry boats) and bank fishing opportunities.
n. Protect rare, threatened, and endangered plants and animals and their habitats.
o. Revise town ordinances to promote open space preservation and conservation.
2. What are the open space needs for (town)?
3. What conservation or recreation uses do you want to see established or maintained in the next 10 or more years?
4. What are the "special places" that contribute most to the unique community character of (town)?
5. What suggestions do you have for the (town) open space planning committee?
Neighborhood meetings and broader public forums
Beyond a direct mailing to local residents, many towns electing to undertake open space planning efforts hold a variety of public meetings outside of the regularly scheduled committee meetings in order to elicit public opinion prior to finalizing plan goals and prioritizing actions to achieve those goals. These outreach events typically take two forms, neighborhood meeting and public forums:
Neighborhood Meeting- Because citizen identified priorities for open space often vary by neighborhood, especially in Maine's more populous towns, hosting small focused outreach events can not only identify neighborhood specific concerns, but is a good chance to garner broad geographic support. Identification of specific neighborhoods is, of course, best completed by local residents on the open space planning committee, but should include downtown neighborhoods, waterfront neighborhoods, and pockets of rural populations defined by housing densities. These meetings should be used as a follow-up to a mailed opinion survey (if used) and should have as a primary goal identifying neighborhood "special places", a neighborhood "wish list" of open space needs, and as a mechanism to recruit plan supporters and future volunteers to help implement plan strategies.
Public Forum- Public forums offer a less intimate, but often as productive venue as neighborhood meetings for gathering public input. Usually held at a public meeting room or local school, these forums allow for a more structured presentation by the committee before an audience of town wide representation. Common activities include an introduction of committee members and a presentation discussing plan goals and process followed by a question and answer session and a facilitated break-out group activity such as prioritizing town open space needs and putting "special places" on maps. Your committee may also wish to host a wrap-up public forum to unveil the draft plan prior to town meeting or town council hearing.
Getting the Word Out
Neighborhood meetings and public forums are only productive if the public shows up. Posters in neighborhood convenient stores, town web-sites, public access cable channels and local papers are all good mechanisms to advertise meetings. Targeted mailings to key stakeholder groups and landowners should also be considered.
Incorporating public input
Public input received as a result of a public opinion survey, or as collected at public meetings should be compiled into a Summary of Needs that reflects what aspects of open space protection were identified by residents as priorities needing action. The summary should be included as part of the plan's introduction and it should be clear to the reader how public input served as the basis for developing the plan's goals and objectives ultimately resulting in a list of specific actions recommended by the committee.
Plan Costs and Funding
Open space plans cost money to research, prepare, print, and distribute. The more detailed the plan, the more it will likely cost to complete, but also the easier it will be to implement. Consultant fees are typically the most significant cost associated with plan development. There are many Maine consultants in the planning, landscape architecture, and natural resource fields that have developed competitively priced approaches to assisting your community. Beginning with Habitat (BwH) staff are also available to help assist with habitat oriented components of the plan free of charge thanks in large part to Maine citizens purchasing conservation license plates and Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund lottery tickets. The cost to complete an open space plan varies widely based on overall scope. The Freeport Conservation Commission completed their plan in 2001 for approximately $6,000.00. The Town of Brunswick completed one of the most ambitious plans in the state for $85,000 which included fees for several consultants, 93 public meetings over 3.5 years, and 13,000 copies of a 16-page insert published in local papers. Many grant opportunities are available to help fund municipal planning work, especially planning work that balances natural resource conservation with growth needs. Potential funding sources have been included in Financing Habitat Protection section of this document. The costs for completing a plan that guides your town's future conservation efforts are an investment that will pay for generations to come.