Regional Open Space

A regional approach to preserving open space
By Katrina Van Dusen, Liz Hertz and Eileen Johnson, Times Record Contributors

In January 2004, more than 65 local officials from the 10 Sagadahoc County municipalities, plus Brunswick and Harpswell, attended a regional meeting organized by the MidCoast Council for Business and Economic Development and Planning (MCBDP). The discussion focused on the economic development and land use planning issues each municipality faces and how these issues could be addressed in a cooperative way. The most common response to the question "What are the top planning challenges facing your community?" was "open space preservation."

Maine's "smart growth" dialogue in recent years has defined the concept of "service center communities." Sagadahoc region residents rely primarily on Bath, Brunswick and Topsham as their service center towns where they shop for groceries, make use of the library and go to the doctor's office. The "rural resource region" that complements these service centers has received less attention where we pick apples, cross country ski, canoe, or enjoy the beach; where the vegetables for our farmer's markets are grown.

The Sagadahoc region's rural areas still have large unfragmented tracts of land where both wildlife and rural enterprises thrive. It is a rich fabric, woven together by shared resources that rarely honor municipal boundaries. However, residential development is rapidly spreading out from the service centers into the working rural areas, where land is less expensive. As farms and other large lots are divided up, the ecological functions and rural values of the area are put in jeopardy.

A small group discussion at the January 2004 meeting produced several good ideas for collaboration to preserve open space and natural resources. A core group of interested people continued to meet and ultimately formed a new consortium, the Sagadahoc Region Rural Resource Initiative (SRRRI). The SRRRI working group, financed by the participating communities with help from Maine's State Planning Office, has been meeting since spring 2004 to explore how the 12 participating communities can work together to preserve the rural character and resources of the region that we share. The participants are Arrowsic, Bath, Bowdoin, Bowdoinham, Brunswick, Georgetown, Harpswell, Phippsburg, Richmond, Topsham, West Bath and Woolwich.

Membership in the SRRRI comprises a broad array of stakeholders: Planning Board, Conservation Commission and Comprehensive Plan Committee members; a town councilor, selectman, municipal staff person; land trust leaders and Nature Conservancy staff; the Bowdoin College Environmental Studies Program as well as state and federal agency representatives.

Many of the towns are updating their comprehensive plans. The individual town plans could conceivably meet the communities' needs and the state's minimum requirements. But without regional collaboration, sprawling development and the gradual loss of rural character and ecosystem services are inevitable. Unless the towns pull together to protect resources that cross municipal boundaries such as trails, water bodies and water courses, and large tracts of undeveloped land the future of these resources will be assessed and planned in a piecemeal fashion.

SRRRI is currently conducting an inventory of the region's rural resources. It will then propose and encourage implementation of appropriate measures to protect open space and natural resources so that crucial rural functions will continue to thrive. To enhance resource stewardship and preserve the values and functions that define the region's rural character, SRRRI will develop new mechanisms to promote collaborative regional decision making and action.

The group has initiated several projects since last spring. One is mapping and developing protection strategies for valuable habitats and wildlife corridors that cross town boundaries. The group has also begun to develop a regional trail map that will show the multiple recreational re-sources available to residents of this region. A third project will be to review the consistency of town ordinances as they apply to the protection of a shared resource, for instance shoreland zoning to protect Merrymeeting Bay. A goal is to provide communities with model language for their shoreland zoning ordinances.

Residents of the 12 communities are invited to participate in a Visioning Session on April 11 from 6 to 9 p.m. at Morse High School in Bath. The purpose of this meeting is to discover which special places and landscape qualities are most highly valued by the region's citizens. Then SRRRI can begin to identify the most effective ways for us to collaborate to protect these resources.

The special rural character of our region reflects a mosaic of land uses spread across a varied and beautiful landscape. Through the SRRRI project, we hope to gain a better understanding of how the pieces fit together, so we can ensure that the rural fabric remains intact for future generations.

Katrina Van Dusen is the planner for MCBDP. Liz Hertz of Topsham is a planner with the Maine Coastal Program at the State Planning Office. Eileen Johnson, who lives in Bowdoin, is program manager of the Environmental Studies Program at Bowdoin College. For more information on the SRRRI project and the visioning session, contact Katrina at 443-5790.