Maine Land Use Summit
By Roger Ek
Aug 12, 2005, 14:01

The Maine State Planning Office hosted a two day seminar at the University of Maine on August 9 and 10 to plan how they want to manage our land in the future. Somehow I received an invitation. I signed up quickly because space was limited. There were about 90 attendees the first day. Most were from the MSPO, various planning agencies, environmental groups and government officials. I think there were a few interested citizens the first day. The two central themes were to get comprehensive plans adopted and updated everywhere and to prevent sprawl. In all the literature offered there was no definition of sprawl, but they know it when they see it.

It started out as a typical government feel-good celebration of the bureaucracy and how they control land use in  Maine. They had an agenda. They had a preconceived finishing point or target of where they wanted to go. To enable and encourage a consensus they broke up into numerous small groups. They had large flip charts where they could record ideas from the participants. Every group had members of the agencies. When an idea was proposed and deemed to be a "great idea" it was written on the board. An idea deemed a problem was not written on the board. This process of herding a public group toward a preconceived conclusion is called the Delphi Process. It is well known and studied in the environmental industry.

At the conclusion of each session, a group member was appointed by the "convenor" to be the "champion" and advocate for the group‘s conclusion. Lo and behold, the champion was most often an employee of the MSPO. Toward the end of the day several group leaders gathered in the lobby of Wells Commons. One convenor was bemoaning the increasing population in his town and how they might have to build a new school. Several other convenors offered their sympathy and spoke of how all this sprawl needed to be controlled better.

I pointed out that his local problem of a failure to plan for the future should not precipitate some new rule that would apply to towns that had planned well and did not have a growth problem. Maine is bigger than the other five states together and a rule that fits a Portland suburb should not apply to a town in "the county". His school has a student teacher ratio approaching 30. My school district last year had student teacher ratios as low as six students per teacher. Nice for the kids, but very expensive.

The second day dawned hot and humid again. several of the citizens who noted that their ideas did not get written on flip charts did not return. There was a group meeting before adjourning to the smaller sessions again. The "facilitator" who had been brought in from Concord, Mass asked what central ideas had come from the first day. He began to categorize them into six themes he liked. Just before adjourning he asked if there were an points that had not been addressed. I had my chance.

I commented on how well everybody worked together and how easily they arrived at consensus. Everybody seemed very comfortable with the process. Everybody used the same words and terms. Group convenors nodded and smiled. However, I said there were some words not heard the first day that might be useful in a discussion of how people can use their land. Some of those words are freedom, liberty, self determination, economic opportunity and home rule.

A few of the functionaries looked stunned. Those words were unfamiliar to them and may never had been uttered in such a setting before. Others looked surprised and hopeful. In fact, there were murmurs of support. The facilitator called a quick recess to break up into groups, but he had left another door open. There were a couple of rooms with no session leaders and were there any volunteers to be convenors? I had another chance. I became an official Land Use Planning Summit Convenor. Yes indeed. Our theme was how to make government agencies more responsive to the needs of citizens and to provide better service. It was like a breath of fresh air. I was surprised at how many participants actually thought that government should serve the people, not the other way around. They came and told how they were born in Northern Maine, how they missed the way Maine used to be and how we might get back to that point.

The whole summit shook a little and it was like Noah’s ark changing course, but questions began to be raised in all the groups. It turns out that a state legislator had introduced a bill this session to abolish the MSPO and it passed out of committee on a 7 to 6 vote. The house speaker was stunned that it had been reported out of committee as "ought to pass", but a bipartisan group of legislators understood that the Maine State Planning Office was out of control and marching to the agendas of NGOs rather than planning to meet the needs of Maine citizens.

The head facilitator from Concord, Mass had a brief conference with MSPO leaders and decided to shorten the sessions. It was hot after all and people might want to leave early. The MSPO began to pull out their big guns. They have money to give to towns willing to adopt comprehensive plans. They have a LOT of money. However, those plans must meet the guidelines dictated by the MSPO. They give the distinct impression that approved comprehensive plans will not contain words like "freedom, liberty, self determination, economic opportunity and home rule". Their big scare word, "sprawl" did not seem so fearsome when it was pointed out that half of all Maine citizens live within 48 miles of Portland and is it sprawl when a family escapes to beyond that perimeter? I pointed out that up in Northern Maine we need some good old fashioned healthy sprawl.

That did it for one UN observer who was taking it all in. He came over and asked me why I came to the conference. I told him that I came to advocate for Northern Maine and local control. I came to raise questions about the wisdom of government telling citizens what they must do with their land twenty or more years in the future as though these government employees could imagine what the land owner’s needs would be some twenty years into the future. The conference had taken such an unanticipated turn that one MSPO employee asked at the final session whether all their jobs were in danger.

We need to face these bureaucrats directly and question their goals. They are skilled at getting Maine citizens to go along with their "vision" for us. The problem is that their vision requires bigger government, higher taxes and less freedom. Facing up to them does not have to be a stress filled experience. We just need facts, straight talk, solid principles and the moral courage to speak the truth as we advocate for Maine.

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