Growth and Rural Areas: What It Means For Your Town

(from Maine Townsman, March 1990)
by J
osie Quintrell (Senior planner with the Office of Comprehensive Planning, Department)

At least 144 municipalities in Maine are engaged in planning for their community's future. Those municipalities are struggling to balance environmental, economic and development concerns. Growth management is not just an environmental protection measure. To be successful, growth management must strike the balance between conservation and development interests and treat both as valid social values.

To effectively strike this balance requires local, jurisdiction-wide, comprehensive planning. Federal and state government agencies cannot perform this balancing act for each municipality. State governments can give or take away municipal authority to regulate land uses and they can protect important ecological features by reviewing the development projects, one project at a time. State governments can also assist businesses to locate in a municipality and give a municipality resources to support community and economic development. Local governments, however, are in the best position to weigh both interests and to formulate policies that reflect the balance of those interests in that community.

These policies should be made during the comprehensive planning process. Too often today and yesterday, those policies were made by local planning boards when they were reviewing a development project. Local planning boards have no legislative authority. They should apply the policies of the comprehensive plan, not make them during the review process. When someone applies to the local planning board for a subdivision permit or a zoning permit or a site review permit, the question is not what should policy be, but does the proposed project conform to policy?

If clear policies are laid out in the comprehensive plan, local decisions will become fair and accountable, and should also be predictable and timely. Fairness, accountability, predictability and timeliness in local land use decisions based on community policies that balance conservation and development interests is the goal of Maine's Growth Management Program, in a nutshell.

Whether these goals are achieved will be answered by the municipality's designation of growth and rural areas, as required by the law, and the standards they choose to apply to these areas. The remainder of this article discusses the concept of the rural growth designations and describes their importance to the goals of the Growth Management Act.

Growth & Rural Areas

The concept behind the growth and rural classifications is simple. Instead of allowing growth to occur randomly, development is directed to areas that are suitable for development and away from unsuitable areas. The suitability of areas for growth depends on physical constraints, the availability of services, protection of rural resources, and local policies. The purpose of these land designations is to promote orderly growth, make efficient use of public services, and prevent development sprawl. In essence, these designations provide the framework for land use and capital investment decisions.

Designation of growth and rural areas is the heart of the planning process. Through the development of the comprehensive plan, towns must review existing conditions, predict future needs, and develop policies and strategies for guiding future decisions. These policies must address a range of issues such as the protection of natural resources, the provision of affordable housing, the local economy, historic resources, and overall community character. The delineation of growth and rural areas indicates where certain policies apply and ensures these policies form a coordinated and coherent strategy for the future.

Growth Areas

Growth areas are those areas where the municipality will direct the growth and development estimated for the next ten years. This includes residential development, such as single-family homes, multi-family homes, apartments, manufactured housing; commercial development, such as retail stores and hotels; and industrial development. For growth areas, municipalities must be prepared to provide public services. In urban areas, these services would include sewer and water systems, transportation, or fire protection. In rural areas, public services do not necessarily include water and sewer systems but might include roads, fire protection, and school bus services. In designating growth areas, consideration should be given to where such services can be efficiently provided.

The amount of area within the growth areas must be large enough to accommodate projected growth and the land should be suitable for future growth. The suitability of land to accommodate future development should be based upon the availability and quality of water resources, the ability of the land to accommodate sewage disposal, and the proximity to existing development and major transportation routes.

Rural Areas

Rural areas are those areas intended for resource production and other allied land use as well as the long-term protection of significant areas with natural, cultural, scenic, or recreational values. Included in these areas are those rural landscapes, important to the character of the municipality. Development in these areas must be compatible with these values.

The purpose of the rural designation is to provide for the long term protection of irreplaceable natural or cultural resources. Rural areas are not intended to be areas set aside for future growth. Rather, rural areas deserve different management in order to protect and maintain these rural characteristics. These areas have productive, scenic, cultural, or recreational resources.

Rural areas may vary among municipalities depending on the local situation. In more urban municipalities, rural areas may be those primarily containing significant natural resources. In more rural communities, these areas should include those important for resource production activities—agriculture, forestry, and mining—and other natural and cultural resources.

Determining Growth and Rural Areas

In all likelihood, the determination of these areas will not be a simple, straightforward process. Instead, the process will involve a number of revisions to ensure that the plan accurately reflects local policies and fulfills the requirements of the Act. One approach is to develop a number of growth and rural scenarios. By doing so, alternative approaches can be examined and reviewed for their effectiveness in achieving local policies.

To assist towns with designating these areas, provisions for growth and rural areas have been developed by the Office of Comprehensive Planning. This list defines the parameters of the areas. Equal consideration should be given to the provisions for both the growth and the rural area.

Directing Future Growth and Development

Once the growth and rural areas have been designated, towns must design specific strategies to direct future development to the growth areas and to discourage incompatible development in the rural area. The primary tools for directing future growth are zoning and other land use ordinances, and the capital investment plan.

Land Use Ordinances: Is Zoning Required?

Frequently, the question is raised whether the Growth Management Act requires zoning. Because the Act requires towns to establish different land use regulations for the growth area and the rural area, towns will have to adopt zoning ordinances. In the growth area, these standards should be designed to accommodate growth, encourage the development of affordable housing and guide the type and location of growth. In the rural area, land use standards must be designed to discourage growth, particularly development that is incompatible with rural resources. To fulfill the intent of the law, there must be a clear distinction between the density standards, land use regulations, and other growth management techniques for the growth areas and the regulations in the rural areas. Uniform standards, applied townwide will not, in and of themselves, fulfill the orderly growth and development goal of the growth management act.

Capital Investment Plans

A capital investment plan sets forth funding priorities for needed public facilities and services. As towns grow, major capital expenditures are required for fire trucks, police cars, snow plows, town buildings, school additions, sewer and water lines and other services. Often such expenditures are presented at times of crisis and towns are forced to spend large sums of money. Capital investment plans establish priorities and timetables for the provision of public services. As part of the comprehensive plan, the provision of public services can be coordinated with other growth management strategies.

Methods for Encouraging and Discouraging Growth

A variety of methods for guiding growth are available. Some tools are sophisticated, such as transfer of development rights and may require professional staff to administer. Others are more straightforward and can be implemented by small towns with volunteer boards and no professional planning staff. The method most appropriate for your community depends on the issues facing your community, the amount of professional staff to assist with administration, and your town's previous experience with land use regulations.

A single model for guiding growth does not exist. Rather, towns must weave together a variety of techniques to develop a system that will implement the policies in their comprehensive plans. Techniques for encouraging growth may include allowing higher densities in the growth areas, allowing multi-family dwellings, and the provision of sewer and water services. Discouraging growth in the rural area may require low-density development, restrict permitted uses, require developments to be clustered, and restrict expansion of public facilities.

The following is a brief list of some of the options available for guiding growth to the growth area and discouraging growth in the rural area.

Some options for encouraging development in growth areas include:

---Reduce lot sizes/density requirements. Reduce lot area requirements relative to lot area requirements in rural districts, to allow a greater number of units to be built on a given parcel of land.

--Sewered lots. Allow smaller lot sizes in areas served by sewer and water lines.

--Setbacks. Reduce structure setbacks in growth areas. Many of Maine's villages were developed on small lots with small setbacks, yet local regulations prohibit a continuation of village-type development.

--Avoid unnecessary or excessive requirements. A number of requirements can increase costs, and thus discourage development. Examples include requirements for granite curbs, wide streets where travel will be light, sidewalks and requirements for numerous studies prior to development approval. The goal of land use standards should be to protect the public but not be excessive.

--Allow zero lot line development. Adopt "zero lot line" provisions that reduce side yard setback requirements in some areas. This allows condominiums, town houses, apartments and other types of buildings that share common walls.

--Allow accessory apartments. Allow the creation of one or more apartments in larger homes that might otherwise be expensive to maintain and heat.

Some options for discouraging incompatible development in the rural area include:

--Restrict permitted land uses. Allow only land uses that are compatible with rural resources in the rural areas. Uses related to farming and forestry should be encouraged.

--Require low density development. Discourage development in the rural area by requiring large minimum lot sizes that maintain the rural character.

--Restrict road access points. Discourage strip development by limiting access along rural roads.

--Require development to be clustered for the preservation of open space. Encourage open space preservation by reducing lot sizes and if set back requirements through cluster zoning.

--Establish resource production zones. Encourage resource production activities, such as farming and forestry, by establishing special districts for these activities.

Establish buffer requirements and performance standards. Ensure development is compatible with the purpose of the rural district by buffering different uses and requiring conformance with performance standards.

--Develop performance standards or overlay zones for resource protection areas. Protect special resources such as wildlife habitat, scenic areas, historic and archeological sites, shoreland areas and other areas through setback requirements, performance standards, design standards, or overlay districts.

--Establish a transfer of development rights (TDR) program. TDR programs create a system that allows for the development rights in the rural areas to be purchased and transferred to the growth area. The system allows landowners to be compensated for land use restriction placed on their land through the sale of the development rights.

--Encourage voluntary land protection options. Voluntary protection measures include such measures as conservation easements and participation in tax programs such as the Tree Growth Tax Law.

The above is only a partial list of options available for guiding future growth. The effective management of growth will depend on a combination of a number of different techniques. The appropriate mix will depend on your comprehensive plan and the particular local situation. The Office of Comprehensive Planning, regional councils and planning consultants can assist with developing the most effective growth management program for your town.

Maine's growth management program requires towns to take an active role in guiding and directing future growth. Instead of allowing random growth, towns must take steps to guide and direct development. By designating growth and rural areas, towns establish a framework for directing future growth to appropriate areas and away from areas that deserve protection. It is through these designations that towns can strike the balance between conservation and development interests.

Assistance with local growth management is available from your regional council or the Office of Comprehensive Planning, State House Station #130, Augusta, ME 04333, 289-6800. In addition, the following written materials may be of interest: Guidelines for Maine's Growth Management Program December 1988, Office of Comprehensive Planning; How to Prepare an Integrated Land Use Ordinance: A Manual for Local Officials, April 1990, Office of Comprehensive Planning.