So I am working on becoming a planner. Why? I harp on about oil prices, sustainability, economies of scale, schlocky strip mall development….but what I am really interested in is land use. Yes I want us as people to use the land the we are endowed with as if it means something. What we build today, where we build it, why we build it, and how we build it, should be a testament to how important that land is.
Land has more value than the money we pay for it. Some lands are productive forests, suitable agriculturally, provide ecosystem services by cleaning air and water through bio/geo/chemical processes. Some would claim you can put a price tag on it, however I don’t think they have considered time into the opportunity cost equation and the length of time it takes for ecosystems to repair themselves, which in turn costs us.
We are going to develop land. I hear rumblings that we (the world) will build the same amount of buildings in the next 50 years as have been built in all of human history. Our population isn’t going to stop growing for a few more years, our current housing stock needs to grow or in some cases be rejuvenated, in others it needs to be replaced. This I understand.
So what is a society, that values a land owners right to freely do with his or her land what they want, to do? How do we also take into account the externalities and opportunity costs of making one decision vs. another? Thinking in terms of the greater system that everything rides on, what seems apparent is that we all have a stake in determining land use decisions. How do we do this without inhibiting someone’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? Tough questions for planners moving forward.
What I think we are coming to collectively realize is that our development patterns of the last 60-70 years have ignored the true cost of the land. We have been able to ignore these costs largely due to cheap fuel prices and a ‘ponzi-scheme’ financial system that encourages suburban growth (for more on this, see Strong Towns) at the detriment of both the land and municipal finances.
I hope we can figure out how to grow meaningful places, that can truly account for the value of land. I like wild places where we can visit, but leave nothing behind. I like to think that we can solve much of our fuel needs on sustainably harvested forests close by. I like farms close by, that grow healthy local food. I also like solvent cities that grew in a way that reflected the notion that we need to be sustainable, both environmentally and fiscally.
I think the suburban experiment is coming to a close. It is time to re-localize and densify our cities and towns. It will be a tough change to make, resulting in quite a paradigm shift….but I think it is possible, or I wouldn’t have become a planner.
Bowdoinham is a small Maine town 30 miles or so between the state’s largest metropolitan region of Portland, and the state’s capital city of Augusta. Bowdoinham is largely a rural place taking up approximately 34 square miles and has about 2,770 people residing within its boundaries, as of the 2010 census. As Bowdoinham embarks on their comprehensive planning process, they began by envisioning who it is they are and want they want to be. For the residents of Bowdoinham who are actively involved in the planning process, they clearly stated that they hope Bowdoinham maintains its charming rural character.
Students of Mark Lapping’s, Introduction to Community Planning Class have been “contracted” to work with the town of Bowdoinham, ME, to conduct Land Use Planning, GIS Mapping, Forestry & Agricultural Resources Analysis, in an effort to help them develop an updated Comprehensive Plan.
My role was primarily technical in nature, conducting GIS mapping and analysis for the land use planning and the forestry resources group. Along with another student, I set about to conduct a build out analysis of the town. Bowdoinham has no actual zoning, but does have a town-wide land use ordinance in place. This ordinance specifies large lot sizes (about an acre) for development throughout the town, which they classify town-wide as a residential/agricultural district.
The first scenario that was conducted looked at the preservation of Bowdoinham’s rural character, natural resources, existing forest and agricultural lands. The goal was to show the town of Bowdoinham what their town could look like, preserving what the citizen’s feel Bowdoinham should be, in light of the town’s current land use ordinance, with restrictions on development in these areas.
In a GIS, the appropriate land use data layers were merged including: soil suitability, current agriculture lands, unsuitable soils for development, protected lands, and other layers conducive to protecting the rural integrity of Bowdoinham. A symmetrical difference function was performed with this merged layer against the town’s parcel layers, giving us a pretty clear picture of what lands could be developed, if the town chooses to maintain their rural character and develop policies aimed at preservation.
A no-holds-barred scenario which only discounted areas that were unsuitable to building structures and lands with special easements on development (transportation right of way, Shore-land Zoning, etc.). The differences are astounding.
Bowdoinham, which currently has about 1,200 residential structures could be looking at ten times that amount of structures under the current land use ordinance and with no vision for how it wants to protect open space and rural character. By protecting open space, forests, habitat, and agricultural lands, Bowdoinham could be looking at the potential for growth in habitable structures of only four times, the amount that it currently has now.
A third scenario was proposed that takes advantage of Bowdoinham’s Downtown Water Service District. What if this area was the focus for growth in Bowdoinham, and the rest of the town was preserved as much as possible, through zoning or land use districting measures that help Bowdoinham accomplish it’s goal or rural preservation? How would this scenario look? Bowdoinham could be only looking at an additional 1,000 structures developed all within a somewhat dense (dense is a relative term here) downtown core area. Limits to this type of development would be the water service districts capacity as well as the minimum area needed for parcels on a septic system, and not a city-wide sewer system, something I don’t think Bowdoinham could nor should afford, regardless of where the funds came from.
These are some of the map products I created in the process.
From the perspective of someone “from away”, the Town of Bowdoinham, Maine is what I would call a fair representation of Maine outside and away from the big towns of Maine, the tourist regions of the coast, lakes and mountains, as well as the three metropolitan regions of Bangor, Portland, and Lewiston/Auburn. Surprisingly there is a lot more of the Bowdoinham, Maine than the big city, touristy places of Maine.
As places like Bowdoinham seek to define themselves through the comprehensive planning process, the role of their forests and natural areas will be a major consideration. The towns people have placed a high priority on the preservation of these resources, but as growth pressure mounts and the sale of the family forest or farms becomes more lucrative, these lands become threatened by fragmentation. Each of the areas in the map below in cross hatches represents lands that have been split in some way or another since 2004. Parcels in green or brown are enrolled in state land preservation programs. Those with both cross hatches and program enrollment represent land use patterns that are threatened in some way or another, whether they are agricultural or forestry oriented.
As a planner, I feel my role is to inform the people for whom the planning process is being conducted, of what lies ahead for the place that they call home. Although Bowdoinham is growing slowly, it does experience some growth pressure, albeit at a snail’s pace. As they seek to match their shared values as a town, with the land ownership rights and economic realities of individual land owners, they should bear in mind that there are often other decisions that can be made in lieu of the splitting and further parcelization of rural properties.
For now, we have made the observation that Bowdoinham has experienced some parcelization and that some of those splits occur on lands that were at one time enrolled in programs designed to prevent the fragmentation of these lands. Whether they decide to work with an active land trust, or develop policies geared to restricting land use rights in Bowdoinham is up to them. Some combination of the two might be the best, working to preserve lands through transfer of development rights, restrictions of how much or how often land is split and developed, and growing the awareness of land-owners of what their land means to rural Maine way of life and how best to preserve it.