Renewing Growth Management in Maine

by Sue Inches and Jay W. Vogt

Planners can benefit from learning new participation technologies. This case study describes how public participation technologies were used to help reform a state growth management program. Planners involved in state growth management programs can learn from several lessons provided in this case about reforming state growth management programs.

In 2005, the Maine legislature asked the State Planning Office to review the state's Growth Management Act and make recommendations for change. The SPO initiated a nine-month public engagement process that included a public forum using a meeting method known as Open Space Technology, focus groups, in-depth interviews, other meetings, public comments, and advisory group input. This article reviews those processes, and details two: the Land Use Planning Summit and the focus groups. It also presents key findings, recommendations, and lessons learned.

The process engaged people in a discussion of the need to balance private property rights with the desire to protect Maine's open spaces. The planning process was successful in soliciting widespread public input, achieving broad consensus, and ultimately gaining final legislative approval.


The architects of Maine's Growth Management Act (GMA) envisioned that mandatory local comprehensive plans would effectively direct growth into "designated growth areas" and thereby solve much of the sprawl problem. The original GMA made local comprehensive plans mandatory and required the state to review them for consistency with 10 broad state goals. When the GMA was passed, the legislature funded staff to implement it at the state level and grant funds to towns to support planning at the local level. The act became law in 1988.

In 1992, an amendment to the GMA made local planning voluntary, although the law still required that zoning be consistent with a local plan. At the same time, funding for implementing the act had begun to fall. State staffing had fallen from a high of 22 full-time personnel in 1989 to six in 2005. The 10 state goals and all of the required elements for local comprehensive plans and state review of plans have remained in place, virtually unchanged, since 1988.

This case begins in 2005, when the Maine Legislature was debating LD 286, "An Act to Eliminate the State Planning Office." This quickly became the bill that wouldn't go away. Public hearings and work sessions were held, first by one committee, then another. The bill later was amended with a directive to gut the 17-year-old GMA by removing state review of local comprehensive plans.

What was behind the debate? Local planning committees had complained to legislators for years about comprehensive plans. After two or three years of dedicated volunteer work, planning committees sometimes received lengthy letters from the State Planning Office (SPO) explaining why their plan was found inconsistent with the GMA. Or in other cases, the state did find a plan consistent with the GMA, but voters in the town refused to accept the plan.

The legislative issue was solved, at least temporarily, when the State Planning Office requested a legislative resolve to study the GMA and return to the legislature a year later with recommendations for change. The SPO had its own concerns with the GMA. Funding and staffing had declined steadily since the GMA was enacted, but the SPO still was required by law to conduct full, in-depth reviews of local plans. (Town submission of plans to the state is mandatory if they accept state funds for planning; otherwise, submission is voluntary.)

Staffing for plan reviews
Figure 1    
Staffing for plan reviews at the state level has declined over the years.    

Further, SPO staff realized that a certain amount of tension and dissatisfaction often creates the right conditions to bring about change. The negative feedback from the legislature was hard for staff to hear, but at the same time it created an opportunity to improve planning at both the state and local levels.

The challenge was to maintain the right amount of tension — enough to keep the planning community and local leadership engaged, but not so much that tensions boiled over and allowed opponents to abolish planning altogether. This case focuses on the process of developing recommendations for change.

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