Getting Control of Growth... Before It Gets Control of You
(from Maine Townsman, August 1986)
EDITOR'S NOTE: The following article was written by John E. Walker, Stephen Butler, Jane Hartnett, Peter Morelli of the Greater Portland Council of Governments at the request of the TOWNSMAN.

Some municipalities in Maine are waking up in the morning feeling like the storied coal miner, who, after a hard day of toil feels "another day older and deeper in debt." The situation for the municipal coal miner is this: officials worked hard to make their town attractive to developers, planned for a vital thriving community with new construction and growth infusing substantial increased property tax revenues to municipal coffers. But, after growth targets are met, town leaders find that instead of being in that enviable revenue situation, they must ask the citizens to accept an annual property tax increase.

This outcome of growth is a surprise to many of us. Why is growth more costly than thought previously?

First, all development requires attendant services: for housing, increased schools, recreation, road maintenance and utility services; for commercial and industrial development more sophisticated road and sewer and solid waste systems, and increased staff complements in police and fire services.

Second, development in questionable land areas may incur unnecessary costs, such as stormwater erosion or pollution to water supplies, or higher per unit cost of utility service. Substandard development may find the town "accepting" poorly designed streets and curbs which drive up public works costs. Third, costs of municipal services don't seem to recognize inflationary patterns - they are always higher, it seems, with infrastructure costs being the most difficult to control.

How can Maine's towns and cities cope with this fiscal downside of growth? Adopt a comprehensive growth management approach - don't simply plan for growth, manage it!

Good growth management requires diligent application of two parallel strategies - one traditional, the other more experimental. Each strategy has a variety of successful tools that can ensure that a community can experience the growth necessary to keep it evolving and vital, but growth that can be prudently financed with the limited revenue resources Maine's local governments have available to them.

The traditional approach requires good, thorough, committed municipal use of the comprehensive plan, zoning, subdivision regulations, and site plan review. The more experimental approach is to incorporate fiscal impact analysis in the review process and utilize a new range of infrastructure financing vehicles to support growth predicated in a capital improvements process.

Let's review the various tools with two minds on growth management: cost prevention and cost recovery.

Cost prevention strategies, if employed well by the town planning boards, councils and, most important, staff that oversee compliance, can be a profound tool in preventing unreasonable costs of growth. Municipalities should renew their efforts to make the following tools work for the town.

The Comprehensive Plan is the official statement of public policies for guiding the physical growth and development of a community. The plan should emphasize goals, policies, and actions which will range from broad discussions to specific solutions. A comprehensive plan generally addresses the following areas: land use trends, natural resources, population, housing, transportation and community needs. The document will identify issues affecting the community such as the need to regulate types of land use, open space needs and traffic, and infrastructure and parking issues.

Usually, the comprehensive plan is developed by the planning board or a specific committee established by the local governing body. After public hearing, it should be adopted by the council or town meeting.

The plan can discourage development in land tracts costly to sewer and service, encourage development with appropriate densities and protect vital resources, such as water supply, that are costly or impossible to replace or repair. Most of all, the plan can guide growth so that the town can finance its growth over time.

In this and future years, towns should consider the comprehensive plan their community investment plan that helps determine how their most viable revenue-producing asset, the land, will be put to the highest, best, and most feasible use. A good comprehensive plan, supported and regularly updated by the town, is a legally supported document to see that growth is balanced and returns to the community the resources it hoped for.

Two vital planning practices make the comprehensive plan succeed - the zoning ordinance and site plan review.

A zoning ordinance is a set of regulations which determines the location of particular uses and the density of development. A zoning ordinance may direct the location of growth, but doesn't necessarily limit it. An important element of a zoning ordinance is the zoning maps, which separate a community into various zoning districts or "zones." Space and bulk standards which include setbacks, lot sizes and street frontages usually are listed for each district described in the ordinance. A zoning ordinance is a working document to be used by planning boards, town councils, selectmen, town managers and code enforcement officers, but must be consistent with the comprehensive plan. Site plan review may be incorporated into the zoning ordinance or prepared as separate documents.

Some cost prevention principles to keep in mind when developing a zoning ordinance are: to base lot size and use limitations on the capacity of the land to accommodate development - e.g., soils, impact on water bodies, slope, etc. Development may be legally prohibited or severely limited on unsuitable lands such as floodplains and wetlands based on the public's health, safety and welfare, but the cost prevention motivation is to avoid town costs in the future, such as dealing with stormwater management control problems.

Also, assuming adequate land capacity, it makes both considerable financial and land planning sense to encourage denser development in areas where existing services such as schools, sewers, fire protection, water supply, etc., are located, or can be extended inexpensively.

Under the state subdivision law, a local Planning Board has the authority to review a development's impact on air and water quality, floodplains, soil erosion, traffic, and unique historic and natural areas. The municipal reviewing authority may adopt additional reasonable regulations such as design specifications for the town acceptance of roads and other required public improvements. In smaller communities, subdivision regulation may be the only local review mechanism for determining and controlling the environmental impact of larger scale residential development.

A subdivision ordinance generally includes design standards for public improvements so that they will not be a burden on the town's budget in the future. For example, most subdivision regulations include specifications for interior roads. They should be of sufficient width and type of construction to allow safe access for emergency vehicles and require only routine maintenance in the near future.

Site plan review regulations, which may either be part of a zoning ordinance or an entirely separate ordinance, are usually applied to all developments other than single and two-family dwellings on individual lots.

A Site Plan Review typically will look at:

The municipal officials interested in cost prevention should invest in site review. Good developers can make mistakes; while bad developers often choose not to comply with accepted land development practices. Either way, the municipality bears the cost of deteriorating roads, failed septic systems, stormwater runoffs. The key is to have and enforce a good set of standards that will prevent problems up front.

The other mindset to adopt is to see resources as an investment to manage growth.

Enhancements to the traditional zoning practices are Planned Unit Development (PUD) and Cluster Development.

A PUD is a large scale land development project, controlled by a single individual or corporation, in which the entire land tract is treated as a whole, and usually includes the following characteristics:

1) a mixture of land uses and building types;

2) large land area and large projects; and

3) completion of the project in several stages during which phasing may occur.

The advantages of Planned Unit Developments are the potential for reduced housing costs through higher densities and clustering, flexibility in building sites, a variety of land uses, open common areas, and preservation of significant natural features. A PUD is different from most other zoning provisions because if its ability to allow mixed uses on one site.

The use of cluster zoning as a growth management toot encourages developing only a portion of the land and leaving the remainder as open space to be used either exclusively by the people in the development or for a town as a whole.

Cluster provisions generally state that developers may not build any more homes than the number permitted by the zoning ordinance in the specific district, but they can reduce lot sizes if the land saved is put into open space. Cluster provisions can be incorporated into a zoning ordinance and usually apply to single-family development.

Cluster zoning may save both the town and developer money by reducing the amount of road construction needed, as well as lowering the cost of utility installation. It can also protect valuable lands such as wetlands, scenic areas and lands with agriculture value from undesirable development. Cluster development often reduces the cost of units to the consumer.

Even the best development project results in some costs to a municipality. These costs may be paid in the form of upgrading a road to accommodate additional traffic to hiring new public works personnel to maintain the roads, or acquiring additional open space or recreation facilities. Recognizing these costs, some Maine towns and cities are viewing development with a second perspective - a cost recovery approach.

This approach is based on the premise that any local development is a partnership between the developer and the residents of the community, and that benefits to both partners should be maximized as much as possible. A municipality, therefore, has as much right to expect a development to have positive community impacts consistent with community objectives, as a developer does to achieve a reasonable rate of return on the investment.

The cost recovery approach may be implemented through enhancements to traditional land use management techniques such as fiscal impact analysis and capital improvement planning, impact fees and planned unit development techniques.

Fiscal impact analysis techniques can be used to evaluate and assess which costs of development should be borne by a town and which costs should be paid for by the developer. This method of analysis, tied to a capital improvements program which lays out a 5- to 7-year plan for major community expenditures, enables communities to plan logically for anticipated needs.

Capital improvements planning has been around for years but sophisticated serious approaches to it require a long-term commitment by the town to budget and finance growth improvements.

Once a community has a clear picture of its fiscal future and the changes in that outlook that development will cause, it can then equitably and accurately assess the costs to the overall development, or on a per-unit basis. Sewer service and water mains are the traditional uses of such assessments, but municipalities are beginning to extend their use to park land, recreation facilities, open space, and offsite road and drainage improvements.

Density bonuses can be used to provide improved municipal services even in times of high growth. The bonuses enhance the financial benefits of certain developments in exchange for the developer's taking extra measures to make the development compatible with the community's goals and plans.

Towns and cities may find these ideas helpful and approach the issue of financing growth with both cost prevention and cost recovery concepts as guides.

These tools do work but like the coal miner's shovel and pick, require hard work and sweat. Towns must apply the tools diligently. Assistance in using them is available from the regional councils in the state, the MMA, and the State Planning Office.

Finally, if you wish to prevent costs and recover costs of growth you must invest in planning. It is our opinion that planning staffs throughout the state are severely underfunded with some notable exceptions. Like any investment strategy, it takes money to make money.