PORTLAND – Most Maine households have by now returned their census surveys and we will have a new picture of our region’s development.

Back in 2001 the Brookings Institution — GrowSmart Maine’s partner in the Charting Maine’s Future project — produced another thought-provoking report from new Census data with giant implications for the Portland metropolitan area.

The 2001 study “Who Sprawls the Most” reported that out of all 281 metropolitan census areas, the Portland region had one of the highest ratios of land converted to urban use versus population growth.

Although we were one of the smallest areas in terms of growth in numbers of people, we were spreading out and converting the rural landscape to urban use at one of the highest and least-efficient rates.

We are all familiar with the reasons. The lack of affordable housing in developed centers of Portland and its surrounding towns, cheaper land in the outlying undeveloped areas, and our love for the Maine landscape, have all led so many of us to the reasonable decision to move out onto a couple of acres miles from town.

Maybe we are loving that landscape into oblivion — and opinions differ sharply about that — but a new industry-led report (from The Urban Land Institute) for the Boston region (“The Boston Regional Challenge”) raises another reason for concern about spread.

Transportation costs in Boston — which also faces sprawl — are now so high for many outlying households that it is counteracting the benefits of lower cost housing. After housing, transportation is the next largest cost for Americans.

Having more transportation choices — such as mass transit — is one way to rebalance that equation. But the pattern of low-density settlement determines the fate of such efforts.

We are still far too thinly spread to jump into changes like the other Portland (Oregon’s) now-fabled rail system built just a generation ago. A driver for making that rail possible was of course the heavyweight Oregon state policy requiring urban growth boundaries and separation of rural from urbanizing lands.

As a former Oregon state planner myself — but New Englander returned home — I can say that approaches like regional urban growth boundaries and the like are not likely to ever help us here. Why?

Because we lack counties with unincorporated territory in which urban expansion can be negotiated with growing towns and cities.

Because our beautiful small town lands are not heavy-production natural resource areas that support tools like exclusive farm use zoning (with true farm minimum lot sizes, not 2 acres).

And because the New England local government structure of our beloved towns requires each to struggle for a healthy — hopefully growing — real estate property tax base to maintain their functions.

Of course, so does Portland, which subsidizes the region with services (the newly renovated library a case in point) but which receives no contribution from beneficiaries in outlying towns.

Regional tax-base sharing could address such issues — it was a hot idea when I was a planning student in 1975 — but it is not likely here anytime soon.

What are we to do, then, to sustain our unique New England character without letting it be a driver of its own destruction? Ultimately, the private market supplies housing choice, and that is where we should look.

When we see compact, affordable and centrally located new housing and community service center development — in villages and neighborhoods or creating new ones — there will be more choice than the one that many household are driven to now, to spread farther and farther from jobs and services.

That is the elegant, choice-maximizing route. Alas, such projects have been proposed over the past 20 years, such as Richard Berman’s Exit 10 new village in Falmouth and the Chamberlain Brothers new neighborhood at Scarborough’s Dunstan Corner — only to be fought over and impaired by using land-use regulation as a tactic instead of as a tool.

Our economic downturn is the crucial time to debate how we will receive new proposals for region-saving innovations that the market will serve up again — soon, we can hope.


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