State of Maine's Environment 2007
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An Environmental Assessment  

The State of Land Use, Planning, and Development in Maine

Beth Darling, Eric Hansen, and Courtney Larson


Executive Summary


Land Use, Planning, and Development in Maine is the second chapter of the report The State of Maine’s Environment 2007.  This chapter focused on the environmental impacts of land use policy and change in Maine among the incorporated municipalities.  For our analysis, we broke the state down into three regions: urban and suburban areas, rural areas, and the coast.  Within each region, we looked at trends in land use and development, and explored how these trends affect Maine’s environment.  We also examined statewide trends and looked at the current state of transportation in Maine. 

Our analysis showed that recent demographic and economic changes in Maine have had a significant impact on land use and planning.  In urban and suburban areas, population shifts from service centers to the suburbs are affecting the economic vitality of both areas and changes commuting patterns.  In rural regions, areas with higher rural character have lower incomes, higher poverty rates, and higher unemployment rates.  On the coast, increasing property values and high in-migration rates are causing a conflict between public and private access rights and are threatening the traditional character of the coast.  Altogether, trends in land use are negatively affecting environmental quality in Maine.

We evaluated and propose a range of policy options to address these problems.  Overall, we concluded that an increase in regional planning would combat environmentally harmful trends such as sprawl.  Ideally, this regional planning would come from an institutional restructuring, so state government could regulate planning practices on a regional level.  However, the current political situation in Maine makes this restructuring impossible.  Instead, creative indirect planning approaches like transferable development rights, downtown revitalization plans, and continued use of already successful programs like the Working Waterfront Access Pilot Program can address these problems without significant additional involvement of the state government. 



Since 1950, land use and population distribution in the United States have changed dramatically as vast expanses of agricultural land have become increasingly urbanized and suburbanized.  From 1950 to 2000, urban areas increased from 1 to 2% of the country’s land use, while exurban (low-density suburban) areas expanded from 5% to 25%1.  In contrast, the proportion of the country covered by agricultural land dropped from 35% to 31% during this time period, and decreased by over one-half in the states that make up the Northern Forest ecoregion, including parts of northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, New York, Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont1.

            These changes in land use have profound implications for the health of the environment.  The demographic shift from rural to urban and suburban areas, resulting in increased density, has lead to air and water quality problems and increased resource use2.  Low-density suburban land use is associated with a set of specific environmental problems, including loss of open spaces, habitat fragmentation, loss of ecosystem services, and wildlife population declines2.  Because of these and other problems, urbanization, sprawl, and patterns of development are now important environmental issues3,1.

            Although Maine has its own unique history of land use and development, it is undergoing many changes similar to the rest of the country.  The history of urban areas in Maine started with towns as industrial centers, usually centered around mills or factories4.  These early industrial centers were situated alongside the rivers that supplied them with both energy and a means of transportation.  From 1970 to 2000, the forestry and manufacturing sectors of Maine’s economy gradually declined in importance compared to other sectors such as services, wholesale and retail, and government5.  The changing economy, along with the increasingly efficient road-based transportation system, meant that compact industrial towns began to transition into service centers surrounded by lower-density suburban housing.

From 1970 to 2000, suburban development increased in Maine, mirroring a national trend of suburbanization.  In 2000, urban areas occupied only 1.5% of Maine’s total land area, but this represents an increase of 16% since 1950.  Suburban areas increased from about 3% in 1950 to 6% in 2000, while agricultural areas declined by approximately 60% over this same time period6.

However, Maine differs from the rest of the country in that current land use change and development are on a smaller scale than in much of the nation; in 2000, 90% of the state was still covered by forests7.  Maine’s coastline also plays an important role in the patterns of land use change and development, since this is one of the main draws for the state’s tourism industry.  In general, Maine is more dependent on its natural areas than many other states – whether for timber harvesting, agriculture, recreation, or tourism.  Although the health of Maine’s environment is important for reasons such as wildlife habitat, human health, and climate change issues (among many others), it also has tremendous economic value for the state.  Therefore, incentives for planning and limiting growth and development in Maine already exist.

            This chapter examines trends in land use, planning, and development in Maine on the statewide level and makes comparisons between different municipality types.  To this end, we analyzed statewide data using the following four municipality types as categories: regional service centers, existing suburbs, emerging suburbs, and rural areas.  Regional services centers are defined by the Maine State Planning Office and are based on four criteria: the level of retail sales, jobs-to-workers ratio, the amount of federally assisted housing, and the volume of service sector jobs8.  The determination of both existing suburbs and emerging suburbs follows Evan Richert’s definitions.  Existing suburbs are municipalities that have a housing density of at least one unit per ten acres, based on census data as projected to the 2010 census.  Emerging suburbs have at least one unit per twenty acres, but less than one unit per ten acres6.  Rural areas are the municipalities that do not fall into any of the above categories.  To draw conclusions about coastal Maine, we also categorized the four municipality types as either inland or coastal in accordance with the Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972 and therefore including any municipality that has land along the coast or a tidal waterway8.  The spatial distribution of the municipality types in shown in Figure 2.1.

We limit our chapter’s analysis to Maine’s incorporated municipalities, meaning those that do not fall under the jurisdiction of the Land Use Regulatory Commission (LURC).  The rationale for this decision is that while organized municipalities may create their own comprehensive plans for development, LURC creates a single comprehensive plan for all of its territory.  Furthermore, as there are no real urban or suburban areas in LURC territory, the inclusion of these municipalities would not further our analysis.

This chapter attempts to answer several questions about land use, planning, and development in the state of Maine.  In the first section, we analyze statewide data, divided into the categories outlined above, to address the questions: Do patterns of land use, planning, and development vary between urban, suburban, and rural areas? Is there a difference between inland and coastal areas?  What do these patterns mean for Maine’s environment?  The second section discusses the transportation system in Maine and how it affects land use, planning, and development, as well as the environmental impact of the current system.  The following three sections address land use, planning, and development and how they affect Maine’s environment in each of our sub-categories: urban and suburban areas, rural areas, and coastal areas.  Each of these five sections discusses historical trends and Maine’s current status, relevant laws, and influential stakeholders.  We conclude with a look at the future of land use, planning, and development in Maine and a set of recommendations for growth.


Figure 2.1  Classification of the Incorporated Municipalities of Maine




Statewide Demographic and Economic Comparison

Trends and Current Status


Before analyzing the current state of land use, planning and development in Maine, it is important to examine both the history and the current trends that affect Maine’s people, economy, and environment.  Maine is changing rapidly in all areas, and these changes are affecting development patterns and land use policy in the state.  This, in turn, has a direct impact on environmental quality.  This section will look at changes in Maine’s population, economics, and development trends across urban, suburban, rural, and coastal regions to explore their effects on land use and the environment.  As discussed in the introduction, these changes in Maine are a part of a larger network of changes that extends across New England and the United States.  In recognition of this, trends within Maine will be analyzed alongside regional and national trends to illustrate the relationships between them. 

Maine’s population has been growing steadily since 1900, and has shown a relatively rapid rate of growth since 1970 (Figure 2.2).  However, the growth rate of Maine’s population from 1970-2000 is still slow compared to other states.  While the average state in New England is growing only slightly faster than Maine, the average American state is growing about six times faster9.  Although Maine’s population is growing overall, different areas of the state are not growing evenly, and this causes population differences among the regions of Maine.


Figure 2.2 Population Growth in Maine, 1900-20009


            Like the rest of the nation, the majority of Maine’s population has been concentrated in urban areas.  Currently, 50% of Maine’s population resides within the areas designated as service centers by the State Planning Office, but in 1960, 64% of the population lived in these same cities8.  Maine’s cities are the only region in the state that has lost population in the past forty years.  Figure 2.3 shows the percentage of Maine’s population that resides in each of the eight study regions, and the change in these percentages over time. 


Figure 2.3  Percent of Maine's Population Living in Each Region, 1960-20009


Despite the fact that more than half of Maine’s organized municipalities are rural, only a little over a quarter of the population lives there.  However, unlike with urban areas, this proportion has remained relatively stable since 1960, so the decrease in urban population cannot be attributed to loss of population from rural areas.  The unexplained population loss comes from a dramatic increase in the population in inland suburban areas during this period.  Between 1960 and 2000, inland suburban areas had a 55% increase in population, which not only explains the loss of population in the cities, but also represents natural growth and growth from migration 8.

             Migration contributes a significant portion of Maine’s total population growth.  Between 1985 and 1990, 60% of the state’s total growth came from in-migration, both from domestic and international sources.  In contrast, between 2000 and 2006, 93% of Maine’s total growth was due to in-migration 10.  According to Evan Richert’s survey of residents of Maine’s mid-coast region, one in five in-migrants come from Massachusetts, and 27% come from another New England or Mid-Atlantic state.  However, almost all states are represented by in-migrants, and survey respondents alone reported ten different countries of origin on four continents 11.

            Economically, Maine is struggling.  While household income rates are consistently increasing in Maine, they are still well below the average household income for the United States, and for New England.  Figure 2.4 shows the relationship between household income values for Maine, New England, and the United States between 1969 and 1999.  Maine currently ranks 32nd in the nation for average household income, and has the lowest income of all Northeastern states 9.  Household income rates are not evenly distributed within Maine: people living in suburban areas have higher household incomes than those in rural or urban areas, and overall, people living on the coast have a higher household income than those living inland (Figure 2.5).


Figure 2.4 Change in Household Income over Time, 1969-19999



Figure 2.5 Household Income by Region in Maine (US$), 19999


            Maine’s poverty rate is also relatively high.  While it has been lower than the United States average over the past thirteen years, Maine still almost always has the highest poverty rates in New England 9.  Within Maine today, the highest poverty rates are found in the service centers and rural areas.  Figure 2.6 shows the relationship between the poverty rates of regions in Maine.  Both existing and emerging suburbs have much lower poverty rates than urban and rural areas: poverty rates in inland rural areas are more than double the rates in inland existing suburbs.  Overall, wealth and poverty are not evenly distributed in Maine, and suburban areas enjoy more wealth in general than urban or rural areas.


Figure 2.6 Poverty Rate by Region in Maine, 19999


There are some dramatic trends emerging in Maine’s population and economy.  Maine is growing, but mostly in suburban areas.  Forty years ago, many of the emerging suburbs that are currently experiencing rapid growth were rural areas 6.  Their relative proximity to service centers and existing suburbs combined with changes in transportation patterns (see Transportation section, below) to facilitate the movement of people into these areas.  This increased development pressure and led to the rapid conversion of land from traditional agriculture or timber uses to the low-density housing typical of suburbs.  At the same time, people were moving out of the cities to these rapidly-growing suburbs (for more discussion on suburbanization and sprawl, see the State of Maine’s Urban and Suburban Areas section). 

The economic state of Maine’s population mirrors trends in demographics.  In general, Maine has a low household income and high poverty rate, but in suburban areas, these values are closer to, and sometimes better than national and regional averages 9.  Unfortunately, this means that the majority of wealth and population in Maine are pouring into one area.  Economic disparity causes policy debate, because it contributes to a divergence of values and priorities among the population of Maine.  When the percentage of in-migrants is considered as well, the potential for policy consensus diminishes further.  This makes it difficult for state government to create and implement laws regarding development.

            These trends will lead to increased environmental degradation in the future in Maine.  Because suburban areas convert land from traditional agriculture and timber uses to low-density housing, they increase fragmentation of natural habitat and also increase the percentage of impervious land.  Both of these things are detrimental to environmental quality.  The low economic status of rural areas causes a disincentive for people to want to support policies that protect the environment, because environmental policies are commonly considered in opposition to policies that promote economic growth.  Rural areas have the highest concentration of open lands and the majority of the natural resources that need conservation.


Figure 2.7 DEP Issued Permits per km2 by Municipality Type, 1985 and 200512



            The trends described above are mirrored in trends in land use and development in Maine.  Figure 2.7 shows the number of development permits issued by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s Division of Land Resource Regulation (DLRR) under the Site Location of Development Act (see Rural Character section) by region.  In 1985, the number of permits per square kilometer in regional service centers was higher than for any other region.  By 2005, this number had fallen by nearly a half, while the number of permits in existing suburban areas rose (the only region to have an increase in permit number between 1985 and 2005).  This illustrates the effects that demographic and economic shifts have on land use practices: as wealth and population shift away from the service centers and into the suburbs, new development does the same.  Changes in economics and demographics do have an impact on land use, and thus on the environment. 

            The following sections of this paper will be devoted to studying the trends within the rural, urban and suburban, and coastal regions in Maine, and their implications for the environment.




                The issue of transportation is important in understanding land use change, development, and sprawl, as the transportation system is the physical link between areas of differing land use.  It is a key element of land use planning and development because the expansion of the transportation system into new areas allows for new residential, commercial, and industrial development.  Development cannot happen without a transportation system in place.  Historically, the related trends of suburbanization and the changes in the nation’s transportation system have worked together to determine land use in late twentieth century America13. 

            Transportation is inherently an environmental issue because of its many effects on the health of the environment.  The impacts of transportation and the environment can be divided into two categories: those caused by driving and those caused by the roads themselves.  Environmental impacts caused by driving include air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and resource consumption.  The physical impacts of roads are habitat fragmentation, decreased water quality, and the invasion of non-native species.  Transportation impacts make up a significant amount of the total environmental impacts of development; for example, transportation is responsible for one-third of Maine’s contribution to global climate change14.

Maine faces some distinctive challenges in the establishment of an efficient transportation system.  Maine’s low population density (38th highest of the 50 states) means that driving is the primary means of transportation, since mass transit is typically not efficient in the absence of large population centers.  As a result, Maine residents have a higher per capita cost of road construction and maintenance than residents of many other states.  In 1999, Maine received only $23,000 in federal highway aid per mile of eligible road compared to the New England average of $52,00015, despite the fact that Maine is second only to Massachusetts in total road miles in the region16.  Finally, the transportation system must be built to accommodate the vast number of visitors that come to Maine in the summer, meaning that many of these roads are not used to their full capacity year round.


Trends and Current Status


There are many variables used to measure changes in the transportation system and how it is used, including commute length, average annual daily traffic, and delay.  Commute length is one way to get a rough understanding of how far people drive on a regular basis, since traveling to and from work makes up 28% of the total vehicle miles driven by the average person in the United States14.  According to data from the US Census Bureau, Mainers’ commute times steadily increased between 1980 and 2000.  This is consistent with nation-wide trends; average commute time in the United States increased from 22.4 minutes in 1990 to 25.5 minutes in 200017.  As shown in Figure 2.8, commutes under 20 minutes have been decreasing since 1980, while commutes longer than 20 minutes have increased steadily9.  This is most likely due to the increased suburbanization and congestion that have occurred in the past few decades.  Figure 2.12, in the Maine’s Urban and Suburban Areas section (this chapter), supports this hypothesis, demonstrating that average commute times are higher in suburban areas than in service center communities, especially on the coast. 


Figure 2.8 Changes in Average Travel Time to Work, 1980-20009



Average annual daily traffic (AADT) is a basic measurement of road use based on the number of vehicles that pass a location on a road in one year, divided by 36518.  It is frequently used in land use planning and road management.  Figure 2.9 shows trends in AADT in Maine during three different time periods – early 1990s (1990-1994), late 1990s (1995-1999), and early 2000s (2000-2004).  All of the values for the early 1990s are quite high, and it is unclear whether this is due to the method of data collection or to high actual traffic values.  The number of data points recorded for the early 1990s was 985, compared to 1119 for the late 1990s and 1145 for the early 2000s.  This means that the number of locations that recorded AADT data increased over these three time periods, and perhaps expanded to cover more than just major highways, which would bring down the average AADT for the later time periods and could possibly explain the high values.

Figure 2.9 Change in Average Annual Daily Traffic (AADT) by Township Type from 1990 to 200419


            Despite this potential problem, there are some relevant conclusions that can be drawn from the change in AADT over this time period.  First, if the data from 1990-1994 are excluded, there was an increase in traffic volume in every category except the inland service centers.  The deterioration of urban centers that occurred during this period explains this result.  The most dramatic increases between the late 1990s and the early 2000s occurred in inland existing suburbs and coastal rural areas, and there were also noteworthy increases in inland emerging suburbs, coastal service centers, and coastal emerging suburbs.  This implies that as towns spread out beyond the borders of the service centers, traffic increased in those suburban areas.  The 89% increase in coastal rural areas between the late 1990s and early 2000s could be a result of sprawl into rural areas as high coastal property values force people to move further from their jobs in coastal communities (see Access and the Coast, this chapter).

Congestion is an important factor to consider in evaluating the current status of the transportation system in Maine.  Due to the seasonal nature of large sectors of Maine’s economy, traffic in the summer months is far worse than during the rest of the year.  Delay is a measurement of congestion; it is a ratio of vehicle miles traveled to vehicle hours traveled (or more simply, a ratio of distance traveled to time).  The Maine Department of Transportation (DOT) estimated that in 2004, total delay on highways was over 38 million vehicle-hours.  Delay is expected to continue growing at two and a half times the rate of growth in travel between 2004 and 203018.  In response, the DOT has proposed a number of mobility improvements to relieve congestion in targeted areas, including Gorham, Skowhegan, Bangor, Bath, and Wiscasset20.

            All three of these indicators – commute times, AADT, and delay – show that road use has been increasing over the past few decades.  This has important implications for air quality and global climate change issues, because as the number of cars on the road increases, so does pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.  Air pollution related to transportation includes the emission of nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, and carbon monoxide.  In 2006, automobiles were responsible for 51% of Maine’s emissions of nitrogen oxides and 38% of emissions of volatile organic compounds14.  The southern and coastal sections of the State do not comply with federal air quality requirements for ozone under the Clean Air Act for parts of every year.  Although this is partly caused by emissions from the Midwest drifting east, over half of the volatile organic compounds that cause ozone non-attainment are from in-state automobile emissions21.

The burning of the gasoline used in cars and trucks also releases carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas; in Maine, transportation accounted for 33% of carbon dioxide emissions in 200614.  A report produced by the Environment Maine Research and Policy Center and the Natural Resources Council of Maine estimated the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by each township in Maine based on commute length and found that commuters living on the fringes of metropolitan areas produce, on average, three to seven times the amount of carbon dioxide of those living in the State’s largest cities14. 

            Unfortunately, usable data on the other category of transportation-related environmental issues – impacts resulting from the roads themselves – are more difficult to find.  Although data on the density of State roads in each township are available, this data does not reflect actual changes in road miles very accurately because it does not include local subdivision roads, which is currently the fastest growing type of road in Maine22.

Roads affect the natural flow of both surface water and groundwater, creating a number of problems.  Since roads are impervious surfaces, they create additional runoff, which can lead to increased flooding in areas below them.  Water quality along roadsides is also an issue.  One study found that 83% of the chemicals found along roads are from vehicles themselves in the form of oil, grease, fuel, rust, and tire wear among others; the remaining chemicals are from sanding and deicing agents, road surface wear, and herbicide and pesticide use along the edge of roads23.  Rain washes these chemicals into local watersheds, where they flow into lakes, streams, and wetlands.  Given the large amount of wetland areas in Maine, this effect could be quite serious. 

            The construction of roads results in direct habitat loss through conversion of land to pavement and roadsides.  Roads also carve up landscape into smaller contiguous patches that have a high percentage of edge area.  This process of habitat fragmentation limits the species that can occupy patches of land, depending on the species’ required amount of contiguous land and their sensitivity to edge effects.  Edge habitat is subject to higher levels of noise and pollution, changes in microclimate (sunlight, moisture, temperature, and wind), and is more vulnerable to disease and invasive species.  Roads can function as corridors for invasive species, which often grow particularly well in the open areas along the sides of roads23.

            Modes of transportation that are less harmful to the environment have been making modest headway in the last decade.  The DOT has been making an effort to increase the availability of passenger transportation through the Explore Maine system, which incorporates ferries, trains, airplanes, and buses.  There are some transit systems aimed primarily at tourists, such as the four Explorer bus routes which run on Mt.  Desert Island, the southern coast, the Portland area, and Bethel/Sunday River, but there are also inter-city bus lines provided by private companies.  The Amtrak Downeaster route was reopened in 2001 and provides transportation from Portland to Boston24.  Use of these transit options increased by 42% between 1994 and 200418.  However, the percentage of Mainers that use alternative transportation on a regular basis is quite small.  The 2000 Census found that only 0.8% of commuters use any kind of public transportation on their journey to work, whereas 89.8% drove, of whom 70.6% drove by themselves to work9.



Traditionally, transportation in Maine has been regulated at the federal, state, or local level; therefore, the US Department of Transportation, the Maine DOT, and town governments are all influential stakeholders in transportation planning.  However, planning often makes the most sense on a regional or county level, as individual roads normally go beyond town boundaries but often are not important enough to warrant the attention of the State government.

The Gateway 1 project in the midcoast region of Maine is an innovative regional approach to transportation planning.  This project seeks to mitigate the problems with congestion on coastal Route 1 from Brunswick to Prospect, a distance of 110 miles that directly includes 21 townships.  Representatives from these townships and from the Maine DOT, the Federal Highway Administration, and the Maine SPO have formed a steering committee to address the issues that face this important section of highway, including population growth, development, tourism, and congestion25.  The Gateway 1 project, if successful, could represent a breakthrough in transportation and land use planning.

Laws, Institutions, and Management


                The history of federal transportation policy has played an important role in the evolution of the transportation system of every state.  From the first Federal-Aid Highway Act in 1916 to the more well-known Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 (also known as the Interstate Highway legislation), the federal government directed the way states constructed their road systems by limiting how federal transportation grant money could be used13.  As a result of the federal regulations, two biases in transportation planning became institutionalized and continue to impact the way land is used for transportation today.  First, there were no federal funds dedicated to urban roads until 1944, and even then they were given the least funding compared to primary routes (interstate roads) and secondary routes (county rural roads).  The result of this policy was that traveling from homes outside of the city into urban workplaces, shopping areas, or other destinations by car became very easy, while transportation within or between urban areas did not improve.  Similarly, the movement of raw materials and manufactured goods from rural or suburban areas into cities was efficient, but transport between cities was not13.

The second trend that emerged from federal highway funding policies was that motorists were consistently undercharged for the construction and maintenance of roads because the cost was spread across the entire population, including people that did not own cars (which in 1954 comprised over one fourth of the population).  As a result, a large number of people adopted driving as their primary means of transportation, since they were not paying the full cost of their road use13.

            After the highway building boom of the 1950s and 1960s following the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, no new major federal transportation laws were passed until the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991.  This policy shifted much of the funding and responsibility for the transportation system from the national level to the state and local levels.  It also provided funding for public transit and small amounts for environmental mitigation, bike paths, and the restoration of historic transportation facilities such as canals, rail stations, and waterfronts23.  However, the patterns established by national transportation policy in the early to mid-twentieth century continue to hold in the form of the physical road structures and a still-growing national dependency on the automobile.

            Historically, Maine state law has not tightly regulated the state transportation system, although there are some notable laws, including Title 30-A, Section 4404, (1989) which states that new subdivisions (defined as the division of a parcel of land into 3 or more lots) cannot cause undue traffic on highways or public roads.  Furthermore, if a subdivision requires a new entrance or driveway onto a highway or public road, the developer must have a traffic movement permit from the DOT under Title 23, Section 704-A (1999).  Traffic movement permits are also required for any project that will add an estimated 100 passenger cars to a state road during peak travel hours.  The purpose of these permits is both for the safety of travelers and to prevent unnecessary traffic and congestion26,27.

More recently, the Sensible Transportation Policy Act was passed in 1991 with the aim of making transportation in Maine more environmentally sustainable.  Some of its terms state that harmful effects of transportation on human health and the environment should be minimized, alternative modes of transportation should be considered with all proposed highway projects, and the use of energy-efficient forms of transportation should be encouraged28.  Table 2.1 provides a summary of the notable federal and state transportation laws discussed in this section.

Table 2.1 Description of Laws Relevant to Transportation13,26, 28






Federal-Aid Highway Act

(Interstate Highway legislation)







Provides federal grant money for state road construction and maintenance.  Stipulations on how funding could be used had a large influence on transportation planning.


Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act




Shifted much of the responsibility of the transportation system to state and local levels.  Also provided funding for public transit and environmental impact mitigation.


Title 30-A, Section 4404



Requires local governments to ensure that new subdivisions do not cause undue traffic and congestion on state and other public roads.


Title 23, Section 704



Requires any new entrances or driveways onto highways or state roads or any transportation project that will increase traffic volume by 100 cars during peak travel periods to obtain a traffic movement permit.  The purpose of the permits is to control congestion and increase safety.


Sensible Transportation Policy Act




Aims to make transportation in Maine more environmentally sustainable by requiring negative environmental impacts of transportation to be minimized and encouraging energy efficient transportation and alternative modes of transportation.




Maine’s Urban and Suburban Areas


            The word “urban” may seem strange in the context of Maine, since the state is known largely for its wilderness areas and quaint coastal towns.  Only three cities – Portland, Lewiston-Auburn, and Bangor – and their surrounding suburbs are considered to be metropolitan areas by the United States Census Bureau.  In the case of Maine, it makes more sense to use the regional service centers as a category rather than these three metropolitan areas.  The service center communities function like urban areas do in other states – namely, as hubs of business, government, and services for the surrounding areas.  Therefore, for the purposes of this chapter, regional service centers are included in the analysis of urban areas.

            Beyond the boundaries of the service center communities lie the suburban townships.  Suburbanization, which we examine in this section, refers to the movement of people into established suburban areas, either from cities or from rural areas.  By contrast, the term “sprawl” implies new settlement expanding out beyond existing suburbs.  It is important to remember that the demarcation of urban, suburban, and rural townships is not permanent; over time, townships tend to shift along the urban-rural continuum.  This movement has important implications for the environment, as the conversion of rural land to suburbs causes habitat loss, fragmentation, increased resource consumption, pollution, and other issues.


Trends and Current Status


            Although Maine has a reputation for being a largely rural state, in the last few decades urban and suburban regions have grown in both size and importance.  Urban and suburban areas currently account for only 7.5% of Maine’s land, but together contain approximately 89% of the State’s population6.  These areas are also the base of the majority of Maine’s economic activity; the Portland region alone, which includes Cumberland county and parts of Oxford and York counties, produced 47.2% of Maine’s gross State product, earned 44.2% of the State’s total personal income, and provided 42.4% of total State employment in 200529.  As the Portland example demonstrates, cities and their surrounding areas make up relatively little of Maine’s land area, but they are disproportionately important in terms of both population and economic activity.

            The issues of sprawl and rapid suburbanization have recently become areas of concern in Maine, especially because of their inclusion in prominent publications such as Changing Maine, 1960-2010 and Charting Maine’s Future, as well as increased awareness of the environmental consequences of rural land conversion.  The attention is well deserved, as the fastest-growing category of land use in Maine is low-density suburban communities6.  Suburban and suburbanizing areas are characterized by rising numbers of housing units, population growth, and long commute times into cities; these are the indicators used in this chapter to evaluate the state of land use, planning, and development in Maine’s urban and suburban areas.

            Housing unit growth over time shows two trends: where land has been converted to housing from other uses and where areas already used for housing have become denser.  Figure 2.10 shows where housing unit growth has occurred in Maine over a 30-year period.  High levels of growth occurred in many of the regional service centers, especially Augusta, Lewiston-Auburn, Bangor, and Portland and its bordering service centers.  On the other hand, some regional service centers experienced low or even negative housing unit growth; these were mostly towns in more remote areas of the State such as Greenville, Limestone, and Oxford.  High rates of housing unit growth characterized the majority of the southern region of the State.  Suburbanization can be seen particularly clearly around the Portland area and in between regional service centers along highway I-95, especially Lewiston-Auburn, where three of the bordering municipalities experienced over 75% growth in housing units.

Population growth over time is another way to show where development occurs (see   Figure 2.11).  From 1990-2005, there were some areas with rapid population growth and others with significant negative growth.  Many of the regional service centers experienced negative growth in this period, including Portland, Lewiston, Auburn, Augusta, Waterville, Lincoln, Dexter, Rockland, Rumford, Calais, and Caribou.  On the other hand, townships around and in between regional service centers in the southern part of the State showed rapid positive growth.  Clusters of townships outside of Portland and north of Kittery experienced the highest levels of growth, and population also grew rapidly around Lewiston-Auburn, southwest of Waterville, and outside of Bangor.


Figure 2.10 Housing Unit Growth in Maine, 1980-20009



   Figure 2.11 Population Growth in Maine, 1990-20059



Changes in the distance that people drive to work can also function as an indicator of suburbanization, since as housing growth occurs in areas further and further from central cities, commute times will become longer.  As discussed above in the Transportation section (this chapter), commute times in Maine have generally been increasing since 1980.  Figure 2.12 adds a comparison across township types; it shows that regional service centers, both coastal and inland, have the shortest average commute times and existing and emerging suburbs have the longest commutes on average.  Inland rural commute times are 18% shorter than inland suburban commutes, but on the coast rural commutes are 23% longer than suburban commutes.  We expected rural commutes to be shorter than suburban commutes because a large amount of the rural population does not commute to urban areas.  However, commute length patterns on the coast were contrary to this hypothesis.  One possible explanation is that because of rising coastal property values, those who work in coastal cities can no longer afford to live near their workplace and are forced to spread out into rural areas in search of lower property taxes (see Access and the Coast, this chapter).

Figure 2.12 Average Travel Time to Work by Township Type9


These three trends combine to show a distinct trend toward suburbanization and sprawl.  Both the number of housing units and population have risen in areas surrounding regional service centers, particularly in the southern part of the State.  Commute times are longer in suburbs than in any other township category.  It seems clear from both Figure 2.10 and Figure 2.11 that suburbs are filling in the areas north of Kittery, through the Portland area, up I-95 to the Waterville and Bangor metropolitan areas.  This can be contrasted with the relatively low growth in population and the number of housing units in the northern and eastern parts of the State.

Understanding the motivation behind the patterns of suburbanization and sprawl requires an appreciation for the economic issues that are involved.  In rural townships, land prices and taxes both tend to be lower than in urban areas.  However, this can be deceiving because as new homes accumulate in an area, property taxes remain the same until the township needs to expand their services, at which point property taxes are likely to jump to a higher level21.  Sprawl is an iterative process; as new housing developments drive up the prices of neighboring lots, newcomers looking for cheaper land are forced to move even further out from the central city.

Furthermore, new housing developments are often inefficiently cheap because the local municipality (and therefore all its residents through taxes) bear the cost of necessary new schools, roads, and other infrastructure to support the development.  Between 1970 and 1995, school enrollment dropped by 27,000 students, but nonetheless new schools were being built to serve students whose families had recently moved to fast-growing suburban and emerging suburban towns.  Similarly, new roads necessary to connect development are often paid for by local governments instead of developers – in essence, a subsidy to those who choose to move to these areas.  These types of expenses – schools, roads, and other necessary infrastructure and services – are ultimately paid for by taxpayers in the township, which drive up taxes of the area21. 

However, the decision to move to the suburbs or a more undeveloped area is not always based on economic considerations.  A survey of recent movers conducted by the Maine SPO in 1999 found that the most frequent reasons cited for moving away from an urban area to a suburb or to a more remote location were that in their old location the houses were too close together, there was a lack of privacy, there was too much noise, there was too much traffic, and/or it was too far from nature30.  These preferences reflect those of people across the country; the National Homebuilders Association found that the top five features people look for in a new home are: spread-out houses, low amounts of traffic, low property taxes, bigger homes, and bigger lots31.  These findings demonstrate that although economic reasons such as land prices and property taxes can partly explain the trends of suburbanization and sprawl, people also move because they want to live in a suburban neighborhood. 

            The implications of increasing suburbanization and sprawl are both environmental and cultural.  Since these trends lead to increased amounts of vehicle miles traveled, the negative environmental impacts of transportation mentioned above are magnified.  Another environmental consequence of suburbanization and sprawl has to do with the size and consumption level of suburban housing developments.  Since new suburban houses tend to be large, they require more land to be converted to development and generally use more resources, including water and fossil fuels.  Suburban houses also tend to be located on large house lots, which require more road area and often result in higher amounts of runoff contaminated with chemicals.  The desire for large lots means that land is being consumed at a much higher rate than the population is growing: in Maine, the amount of developed land increased by 16.4% between 1985 and 1999 while the population only grew by 8.6%2.

            Cultural implications of suburbanization and sprawl revolve around the deterioration of downtown areas in service center communities.  As people move out to suburbs, a variety of businesses, including shopping malls, restaurants, and other services, move out to accommodate these new developments and to take advantage of the same low property taxes that draw people to live in the suburbs5.  The result of this migration is that downtown businesses begin to falter due to competition with suburban businesses.  Combined with the declining populations in service centers, this pattern leads to abandonment of historic buildings and underutilization of downtown areas32, which are part of the classic small-town culture that Maine is known for.



            There are a variety of entities that have a role in the planning of urban and suburban areas.  Although the state has a nominal role through the Growth Management Act (see laws section below) and the Maine SPO, it is the townships that have the most influential role in local land use planning.  Due to the strong tradition of local control in Maine, townships are often reluctant to relinquish control over their territory, despite the fact that issues like watershed management and road construction are often better planned on a regional level.  Therefore, town councils and related organizations frequently have a stronger role than the SPO in determining how development and growth are managed.

            There are also a variety of nongovernmental organizations that are involved in working with local governments to promote better land use, planning, and development.  GrowSmart Maine is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to “promote sustainable prosperity and to protect the state’s distinctive character and quality places”33.  To this end, they have produced the report Charting Maine’s Future (discussed above in the Statewide Demographic and Economic Comparison), held town meetings, and coordinated the GrowSmart Maine Summit, among other activities.  The Maine Downtown Center, an organization associated with state offices as well as the nonprofit group Maine Development Foundation, works to revitalize deteriorating downtowns through new investment, businesses, and jobs.  Since 2000, they have provided resources and assistance to six towns: Saco, Bath, Gardiner, Waterville, Eastport, and Norway, which they call the Main Street Maine communities32 (see Case Study 2.1).  Another non-profit organization, Beginning with Habitat, is a joint effort of federal and state agencies, regional governments, and conservation groups.  The program is based on promoting conservation of habitat by providing townships with data, maps, and advice on critical habitat areas to use in land use planning efforts34.





Case Study 2.1 Downtown Revitalization in Gardiner


Gardiner, Maine, is a service center community located along the Kennebec River just south of Augusta.  Historically, its location on the river allowed it to become home to various industries, including paper mills, wharves, lumber yards, tanneries, and ice production.  After many of the town’s businesses closed in the 1960s, Gardiner became more of a bedroom community from which people commuted to nearby cities such as Augusta, Bath, and even the Portland area.  The town’s population shrank from 6,897 in 1960 to 6,198 in 20009.  Meanwhile, the suburban townships surrounding Gardiner (Pittston, Richmond, and West Gardiner) grew.  The result of the changes in population and closing of industries was a deterioration of the downtown area of Gardiner; vacant shop windows dotted the main streets and historic buildings fell into disrepair32. 

However, the township has been taking meaningful steps to counteract the decline of its downtown area.  In 1999, the city council developed a Downtown Revitalization Plan and in 2001, the town was chosen by the Maine Downtown Center as one of their Main Street Maine communities.  This designation resulted in $2,575,000 for revitalization efforts, including restoration of a historic theater and enhancement of public access to the shoreline of the Kennebec River.  From 2002 to 2004, 17 businesses moved into the downtown area and 29 new jobs were created.  Gardiner is an example of a service center community that has suffered a decline in population and economic activity, but because of the dedication of its citizens and the Maine Downtown Center, is now on the upswing32. 



Laws, Institutions, and Management


The most important law in recent Maine history governing land use, planning, and development is the Growth Management Plan of 1988, which includes the Comprehensive Planning and Land Use Act (PL 1989, c.  104, Pt.  A, §45).  The Act allows the State government (and specifically the SPO) to assist communities in designing and implementing comprehensive plans for growth at the local level, but does not require that municipalities adopt these plans.  Municipalities that choose to create a comprehensive plan are required to identify growth areas, where increased development will be permitted.  They are also required to develop zoning plans that restrict development to the most appropriate areas.  This not only protects the natural environment and character of the area, but also encourages economic growth in the areas that are the most suited for development.  A 2000 amendment to the Growth Management Act requires that all state buildings must be located in downtowns, preventing the state from adding to the problem of sprawl that they are attempting to minimize8.

While this Act has several beneficial implications for communities, including preservation of open spaces and stimulation of the economy, the general framework plan has several major flaws.  By allowing municipalities to choose whether or not they want to participate and develop a comprehensive plan, the Act allows municipalities to simply opt out of the plan altogether.  The SPO found that only 29.8% of the incorporated municipalities in Maine have some sort of zoning regulations in place beyond the state mandated shoreline zoning8.  This means that more than two-thirds of Maine’s communities are not receiving the benefits of the Act, and have no practical, state-controlled limits on their growth.  Furthermore, even those that do have comprehensive plans do not always follow their own guidelines for growth; Evan Richert found that “only a handful… have meaningfully implemented them”6.  This is one of the reasons for continuing unmanaged sprawl – townships are simply not enforcing the provisions of their comprehensive plans, if such plans even exist. 

            Downtown rebuilding plans are subject to a number of codes and requirements that often impede revitalization efforts.  For example, the state fire code can prevent old, historic buildings from being used because they do not comply with modern code regulations and it is costly to remodel them.  Although safety is important, historic buildings are unique and must be evaluated differently from new buildings.  Requirements to meet the Federal Americans with Disabilities Act are similarly problematic; hallway width requirements alone can be enough to necessitate demolition of a building32.

            Finally, municipal zoning ordinances, when they exist, control what kind of development is permitted.  The most basic zoning concept is to separate residential areas from commercial and industrial areas; however, this idea led to the construction of suburbs across the nation31.  In many Maine towns, ordinances dictate the allowable housing density and the location of residential, commercial, and industrial areas.  These ordinances prevent the development of “smart growth” communities, which feature mixed-use development and moderately dense settlement in order to reduce land use conversion and dependence on the road system6.



Table 2.2 Description of Laws Relevant to Land Use, Planning, and Development8, 12, 35, 36






Comprehensive Planning and Land Use Act







Allows the State government to assist in designing and implementing comprehensive plans for growth at the township level.  Municipalities are only required to develop plans if they have some kind of zoning already in place.


Site Location of Development Act




Requires plans for large-scale development to be submitted to the Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) Division of Land Resource Regulation (DLRR) for approval before construction can begin.


Erosion and Sedimentation Control Law




Requires any project that displaces significant amounts of earth to implement measures to control erosion and sedimentation.  Controlled through the DEP DLRR. 


Stormwater Management Law



Requires any development project of greater than one acre to implement stormwater and runoff protection measures.  Controlled through the DEP DLRR.


Coastal Zone Management Act



Defines the coastal zone.  Provides funding for states that create a management plan with the federal government.  Administered through National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and State Planning Office in Maine


Mandatory Shoreline Zoning Act



Requires shoreline areas must be zoned within 250 feet of high water line of a water body or upland edge of a wetland.  Controlled through the DEP DLRR



Rural Character

Trends and Current Status


            In 2007, after the publication of Charting Maine’s Future, Governor Baldacci created a Council to study the effects of Maine’s Quality of Place on the future of the state’s growth and development 37 2007, 2007.  Charting Maine’s Future states that “land development patterns are… consuming rural land, increasing government costs, and degrading the state’s small towns and environments,”33.  It is the latter portion of this statement that this section will focus on: the degradation of the state’s small towns and environments.  Town meetings across the state are populated with interest groups who fight against development to save this same “rural character,” and these groups often come into conflict with others who are striving to promote economic development.  The question is: are these two groups necessarily in conflict?  How exactly does rural character impact Maine’s economy?  Can we come up with policies that both promote economic development and protect rural character?  While groups such as the Governor’s Council on Quality of Place have taken considerable steps toward addressing some of these questions, there is still a lot of work to be done before we can implement policies to protect rural character.

            For the purposes of this study, we define rural character as a combination of three variables: low population density, low housing density, and low road density.  Towns that exhibit rural character will be those that have a population, housing, and road density falling within the lower third of all municipalities (and not to exceed the mean value for emerging suburbs).  Figure 2.13 shows towns that exhibit rural character by these criteria in relation to other, and also to the regional service centers, emerging suburbs, and existing suburbs of Maine.  The constraints of the criteria mean that not all towns defined as rural by our study have rural character, and some towns that fall under other categories to have rural character traits.  However, the similarity of the rural character towns in all relevant characteristics make them a valid data set for analysis. 


Figure 2.13 Maine Municipalities Meeting Rural Character Criteria



            As we saw in the statewide demographic and economic trends section, Maine is below average economically.  Low incomes, high poverty rates, and high rates of unemployment hinder the State’s development and limit its economic competitiveness with other states.  Within Maine, rural areas are more economically depressed than most (see Figure 5 and Figure 6 for regional comparisons of wealth indicators), and within an even tighter focus on rural areas, municipalities that have higher rural character ratings have lower wealth indicators than those that have lower rural character ratings.  The relationship between rural character rating and wealth, as indicated by a Comparative Wealth Index (a composite of household income, poverty rates, and unemployment rates) is shown in Figure 2.14.  Municipalities showing rural character in general have poorer values of wealth indicators than rural areas that do not show rural character. 


Figure 2.14 Comparative Wealth Index Value in Relation to Rural Character Rating



            In addition, there is an interesting and unexpected relationship between wealth and rural character on the coast.  In general, the coast has better values of wealth indicators than inland areas, and this trend holds true for coastal and inland rural areas as well.  However, among rural areas that show rural character, coastal communities have a lower income and higher poverty rate than similarly rated inland communities.  Rural character seems to have a detrimental affect on a community’s wealth, but this cost is disproportionately large on the coast.





            The major stakeholders in rural areas are the communities that possess these traits, and can use it as a resource.  We estimate that there are 218 municipalities in Maine that meet the criteria of population density, housing density, and road density sufficiently to exhibit rural character.  These communities are in the best position to benefit from the economic and social advantages that rural character brings to their area, and thus should show the most interest in its preservation.

            The people who spend time in rural character communities are also major stakeholders, whether they live there permanently or simply visit the area.  However, residents of local communities are often divided between the desire to preserve the natural beauty of their towns and the need for economic growth.  The lack of available options that link the two drives individuals to support the need for growth, often at the expense of the environment.  However, rural character also draws people to move to rural areas, and these people often place a higher value on the preservation of the natural environment than permanent residents 38.  The conflicts that arise between the differing opinions on growth of these two groups often manifest in the “native” vs.  “from-away” duality of Maine politics11, but these apparent disagreements can potentially be solved by the third group of people who have an interest in rural areas: tourists. 

Tourism is the largest single contributor to Maine’s economy, bringing in more than $13 billion dollars in sales every year 39 2006, 2006.  Areas that are rich in natural resources and opportunities for outdoor recreation consistently attract more tourism-based income than areas that do not have these resources 38.  Tourists are interested in the rural character of places, and are willing to spend money to enjoy it.  It is one of the central conclusions of Charting Maine’s Future that the future of Maine’s economic growth lies in the state’s unique local and environmental character 33.  According to Spreading Prosperity to All of Maine, a report by the Maine Center for Economic Policy, Maine’s rural communities could become a world-class tourist destination, which would provide a significant increase in economic benefits for Maine 40.  Tourists enjoy Maine because it is different from where they live, and if Maine continues to suburbanize and lose its rural character, the opportunities for economic growth in the tourism sector will be lost.

Laws, Institutions and Management


The State of Maine has enacted a series of laws and rules to regulate growth within its communities.  Limits to growth are beneficial to the preservation of environmental quality, but most current planning laws in Maine are not structured in a way that prevents growth to protect the environment, but rather to mitigate environmental degradation without hindering development.  However, this is not to say that Maine’s laws do not protect the environment.  There are provisions within many planning laws that are specifically designed to protect open places, water and air quality, and wildlife habitat.  In addition, separate legislation that is specifically aimed at the detrimental environmental affects of development minimizes the negative impact of new projects. 

Some of these specific environmental protection rules are the Site Location of Development Act (38 M.R.S.A.  §§ 481-490), Storm Water Management Act (38 M.R.S.A.  § 420-D), and Erosion and Sedimentation Control Act (38 M.R.S.A.  § 420-C).  All three of these laws are managed through the Department of Environmental Protection’s Division of Land Resource Regulation (DLRR), and require new plans for development over a certain size to apply for permits.  Permits are issued on the condition that the development meets the environmental standards in the legislation.  While these laws provide some protection, their focus on the environment weakens them as planning laws, since there is no control or monitoring of where in the municipality the development is located.  Areas and developments falling under these laws do not receive all of the planning benefits that comprehensive plans and the designation of growth areas provide, and are not an effective replacement for such programs.

            The framework legislation for growth management in Maine, the State Growth Management Act and the Comprehensive Planning and Land Use Act (PL 1989, c.  104, Pt.  A, §45) are described in Table 2.2.  Both laws have direct relevance to rural planning, but since only 52 of the 238 rural towns in this study have formulated Comprehensive Plans under this legislation, the laws only apply to a small portion of the data set 8.  The Mandatory Shoreland Zoning Act (which is discussed in detail in the Access and the Coast section) requires zoning around all waterways, and given the high density of surface water in Maine, these rules apply to most municipalities.  However, the majority of land in rural Maine is not covered by zoning laws or other organized, state-managed planning legislation. 

            Given the inefficiencies of existing planning legislation in Maine, and their inability to effectively regulate development, other strategies have been developed to address growth management that do not involve formal legislation.  One of the most promising of these alternatives is the Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) program, which seeks to provide management of growth areas within municipalities through the use of market incentives.  In a TDR system, conservation easements are placed on undeveloped lands in a municipality while increased development density rights are given to the growth region.  The easements are funded by developers with an interest in increased development within the growth region.  Although TDR programs have not yet been successful in Maine, other states have found them effective, and they are a promising option for future growth management in Maine 41.

            While rural character may be a difficult concept to define, and therefore a difficult concept to analyze quantitatively, it is nonetheless vital to Maine’s economic and environmental vitality.  Therefore, comprehensive legislation and creative, nongovernmental programs need to be implemented in a timely manner to preserve rural character before it disappears.  Unfortunately, decision makers are too often preoccupied by the fact that rural areas are some of Maine’s poorest areas (see Statewide Demographic and Economic Comparison section), and programs that encourage economic growth are chosen over those that preserve rural character.  Today, rural character is still common in Maine’s small towns, and the opportunity to use this resource for economic benefit still exists.  How long it will continue to be available, given current trends in sprawl, is subject to opinion.  As we look to future options in planning policy, it is important to remember that as Maine continues to grow and change, rural character will continue to have an impact on the state’s overall character, and the composition of its economy.


Access and the Coast

Trends and Current Status


            This county’s coastal areas face significant development pressure.  It has been predicted that in this decade the coastal population of the United States will increase by 60%.  This is especially true in the Northeast; by 2010, coastal county population density in this area will be 10 times the national average42.  The population is growing along the coast because of waterfront access.  However, at the same time, the increasing population is putting pressure on already existing access points.  This makes planning for development on the coast critical, since new access points have both economic and environmental implications.  This section addresses the conflict between commercial and private access and their relationship with changing property value.  It then outlines some policy tools that have been created to address the changing access on the coast.

            There are several different types of access points.  Many access points are recreational, used for boat launches or beach access.  Both of these functions are important for tourism.  This section, however deals with commercial access points and new private access points.  Commercial fishing access points typify the traditional economy on the coast of Maine43.  Commercial fishing points generally have multiple users and they are much more economically important than coastal residential construction.  A study by Charlie Colgan showed that the “the working waterfront contributes anywhere from $15 million to $168 million more per year to our gross state product than does coastal residential construction.”44

Working Waterfronts in Maine, which have become the center of the commercial access discussion, are defined only in the Maine Revenue Service tax code.  This states that “‘Working waterfront land’ means a parcel or portion of a parcel of land abutting tidal waters or is located in the intertidal zone (located between the high and low water mark) the use of which is more than 50% related to providing access to or in support of the conduct of commercial fishing activities.”45 There are currently 1,045 working waterfront access points on the Maine coast.  These points amount to approximately 20 miles of coastline, out of a total 5,300 miles of coastline in Maine.  Fifty-five percent of these points are privately owned; the rest are publicly owned43.  The number of commercial fishing access points by municipality is shown in Figure 2.15.  The majority of municipalities in the coastal zone have two or fewer commercial fishing access points.  There are only 20 of a total 142 municipalities that have 20 or more points.  These points are relatively evenly distributed across the state. 

While the number of commercial access points has remained relatively static, property value has been rising dramatically (Figure 2.16).  There has been a 50% increase in total assessed property value between 2002 and 2007.  This rise has not been evenly distributed across all coastal townships, however.  The rural areas on the coast currently have the highest assessed property values per capita.  This is followed by established suburbs, emerging suburbs, and finally regional service centers


Figure 2.15  Number of Commercial Fishing Access Points by Municipality, 200746



Figure 2.16  Assessed Property Value per Capita for all Coastal Counties, 2002-200746, 47


            Increased property value indicates that waterfront property has become more desirable in Maine.  This is not, however, an issue of overall increase in property value; distribution of where this property value rise occurs plays an important role.  There is a positive relationship between property value and commercial fishing access points46.  Municipalities with assessed property value per capita in the top 50% have a significantly higher number of access points than those in the bottom half (Mann-Whitney Test, z=-2.318, p<.000).

            There is also a relationship between property value and the number of new permits approved for piers on the coast12.  Under the Mandatory Shoreline Zoning Act, the Maine DEP must issue a permit for any new piers, since they fall in the regulated zone under this act.  These new piers generally are private access points and not working waterfront access points.  There is also a positive relationship between assessed property value and the number of new pier permits (Mann-Whitney Test, z=-4.132, p<.000).  This relationship suggests that the new coastal landowners, who are driving up the price of the land, value private access.  This also suggests a negative outlook for public and commercial fishing access points.  By building private access points, these land owners demonstrate that they have different values than those people who are not building these new points.  Thus, they are more likely to remove these other access points than landowners who are not building a private access point.

            In addition to the impacts on the economy and character caused by this shift in property value, there are environmental implications of this change as well.  The coast has a number of sensitive habitats, including dunes and wetlands.  These habitats benefit from as little disturbance as possible.  States have been relatively effective at coupling natural resource protection and public access.  Solutions have included dune walkovers, wetland catwalks, and limited public access regulations42.  However, by adding more access points, there is an increased risk of environmental harm.  This is only augmented by adding private access points, where the state has less control over their execution.




            There are two sets of stakeholders that deal with public access in Maine.  These are the actual resource users and the public agencies that are involved in regulation.  Within the resource users group, there are the old and new residents on the coast.  The old residents are the people with an expectation for resource use.  These include fishermen and this is the group that has traditionally used group public access points to get to the water.  The new users are the people moving into the state of Maine or to the coast and purchasing new land.  This group drives up the property values on the coast and builds the new, individual private access points, that restrict the access of old residents.

            There is also several government agencies involved in regulation of coastal areas.  The DEP is the agency that issues new permits for construction in the coastal zone, a regulated activity.  The SPO also plays a key role in management of the coast.  It is the agency that produces the Maine Coastal Plan and serves as the intermediary between the federal regulatory structure and the local governments.  For public access specifically, the Department of Marine Resources executes the Working Waterfront Access Pilot Program.  They do this in conjunction with the private organizations Coastal Enterprises, Inc.  and the Island Institute.  In addition to working on this project, the Island Institute represents coastal and island communities more generally48.

Laws, Institutions, and Management


The state of Maine uses zoning to address new growth on the coast.  The Mandatory Shoreline Zoning Act dictates that all shoreline areas must be zoned within 250 feet of the normal high water line of any saltwater body and within 250 feet of the upland edge of a coastal wetland (Table 2.2).  There are also provisions for freshwater bodies and wetlands.  The statute states that these requirements are in place to protect environmental quality, commercial fishing, historical sites, and access points.  The statute also states that the purpose of zoning is to “anticipate and respond to the impacts of development in shoreland areas.”35 2003, 2003 The effect of this statute is that the Department of Environmental Protection must issue permits for development.  All new construction within this zone must be approved by the DEP.

There has been action on the federal level as well.  In 1972, the United States Congress passed the Coastal Zone Management Act (CZMA).  Congress found that the coastal zone is of particular environmental and economic importance and this act is designed to assist states in the management of this zone36.  This act provides funding for states that work with the federal government on a management plan.  In Maine, this plan has taken the form of the Maine Coastal Program, administered by the Maine SPO.  This Program was created in 1978 as a partnership between several public and private actors.  In Maine there are 136 organized municipalities that fall into the coastal zone as defined by the CZMA49.

            Every five years the Maine Coastal Program releases an assessment and strategy document, called the Maine Coastal Plan.  This document is meant to address the nine policy areas that are dictated by Section 309 of the CZMA.  These are Public Access, Coastal Hazards, Ocean Resources, Wetlands, Cumulative and Secondary Impacts, Marine Debris, Special Area Management Planning, Energy and Government Facilities Siting, and Aquaculture.  About $400,000 a year is available from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to fund program enhancement strategies under this Plan.49

Within the public access policy areas, The Working Waterfront Access Pilot Program has been developed.  This program was created in 2005 through the passage of the Land for Maine’s Future Bond, which secured $2 million in funding to “protect strategically significant working waterfront properties.”49 The purpose of this project is to buy covenants on current working waterfronts to protect commercial fishing access even if there is future transfer of property ownership.  This program is administered by the Department of Marine Resources and the Land for Maine’s Future Board.  Using this approach, Maine has been more successful than any other state at protecting working waterfronts48.

There is a changing pattern of land access on the coast.  Land is becoming more desirable and as a result more expensive.  Traditional public access rights may begin to disappear and the most vulnerable places are the most at risk.  Maine has pursued a number of different policy tools to deal with this issue.  This diversity of solutions should be encouraged; it has been shown that the wider the variety of tools a state uses to secure public access, the more public access points there are42.


Analysis and Discussion


            Our analysis shows that the current development trends in Maine have resulted in a loss of character in all municipality types of the state.  In urban areas, people are leaving the regional service centers in favor of suburbs.  The downtown urban centers that characterize Maine’s cities are shrinking.  In rural areas, housing density is increasing, converting these areas into emerging suburbs.  Emerging suburbs have less open space and they are losing their rural character.  On the coast, commercial fishing access and public access points are threatened with disappearing.  These traditional types of access points define the image of the coast and without them the coast loses it character as well.

            The character of Maine’s municipalities is an integral part of tourism in Maine.  David Vail highlights this importance with his discussion of tourism on the coast.  He states that, “With its lighthouses, lobsters, and L.L.Bean, the Maine coast Down East to Mt.  Desert has a potent brand image in national as well as regional markets.”51 Without its character, Maine would not be as effective at drawing tourists.  Since tourism is the second largest sector of the economy in Maine, this is a significant concern51.

            In addition to the loss of character, our analysis showed that current development patterns have shown negative environmental impacts in all municipality types.  New roads result in environmental impacts from runoff and habitat fragmentation.  The creation of new suburbs also fragment habitat and Maine’s natural landscapes, as well as instigate erosion and sedimentation problems.  Additionally, there is increased resource consumption for new development.

            Finally, our analysis showed that, within each municipality type, there are policy tools that have been developed to address the impacts of development.  The Gateway 1 Project is looking at transportation planning on a regional scale.  In regional service centers, downtown revitalization projects are attempting to draw people back out of suburbs and into urban areas.  In rural areas, transfer of development rights has the potential to protect open space, as it has in other states.  Nature-based tourism is also being used to draw tourists to, and increase the value of, undeveloped land.  And on the coast, covenants on access point function are protecting character and the environment.  Finally, the Maine Coastal Plan, which works within a federal framework, is being used to leverage federal funds.  All of these policy tools are starting to make much needed headway against the trends suburbanization and sprawl.





            We suggest three possible future scenarios for land use in the incorporated municipalities of Maine.  The first scenario continues the current trend of suburbanization and land conversion.  The suburbs would continue to grow, while service centers shrink in population.  There would be less open space as more land is converted to residential and commercial use.  This would result in a loss of rural character, an increase in commute time to work, and a decrease in public access on the coast.  This scenario is a continuation of the current planning policies.  Planning is decentralized and is not mandatory.  There would be no new growth management policies. 

            In the second scenario, the character of Maine’s communities would be preserved.  Planning would restrict growth to set areas, lessening habitat fragmentation as the new planning process would take these impacts into account.  Congestion and commute time would also decrease, as planning would consider these issues as well.  While Maine’s communities would retain their structure and organization, their “feel,” they would lose much of their local planning power.  While these communities would appear as they traditionally have, they would lose some of their actual community as decision making is transitioned to higher levels of government.  Planning would take place on a regional level.  There would also be mandatory comprehensive planning and zoning and there would be enforcement of these plans. 

            The final scenario strikes a middle ground between the previous two.  While the formal planning process would not change, there would be a strengthening of informal planning.  This would allow for preservation of open space, prevention of habitat and landscape fragmentation, and control of suburbanization and sprawl, but only on select projects.  Several informal planning tools already exist.  Downtown revitalization projects are making regional service centers more desirable places to live, preventing the spread to the suburbs.  Transfer of development rights, while unsuccessful currently, has the potential to be an effective policy tool.  This tool has been used successfully in other states.  The Working Waterfront Access Pilot Program has been successful at preserving working waterfronts by allowing the state to buy a covenant on this function.  There would be protection for open space and public access, but on a case-by-case basis.  There would also be increased controls and restrictions on growth, also on a case-by-case basis.  In this scenario, planning would stay primarily at the municipal level.  These indirect tools leverage funding from a variety of sources and use positive incentives to alter the planning process.  This is not as effective as direct planning at achieving planning goals; however it preserves the tradition of planning at the local level.



            While the direct planning scenario is the most effective at achieving better planning, it is not a viable alternative for Maine currently.  Local municipalities feel too strongly about planning at the local level.  While this could be a long-term goal, it will take considerable time to realize this scenario.

            The indirect planning scenario is therefore a more viable alternative to the status quo.  We recommend increasing the number of indirect planning tools.  In the case of coastal management, using the federal regulatory framework under the Coastal Zone Management Act has been effective at both leveraging funding as well as communicating ideas with other states.  We recommend using an approach such as this for other areas of planning.  Creating coalitions of both public and private groups has also been effective at discovering and implementing new tools.  These arrangements should also be encouraged and actively pursued by the state government.

            It is our hope that planning in the state of Maine will move towards direct regional planning with as few negative effects as possible.  By starting this process with indirect mechanisms, we hope that over time public opinion will shift to become more accepting of regional planning.  There are many positive elements to the current trends in development in Maine.  For example, household income is higher in suburban areas.  We would like to see planning solutions that embrace these positive aspects while controlling the negative aspects.  Starting with case-by-case planning would allow for some experimentation of the best way to keep all of the positive effects.  This could be used later on to create a statewide model. 







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State of Maine's Environment, Colby College Environmental Studies Program
Content by Students in ES493: Environmental Policy Practicum
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