PORTLAND — Will the future of southern Maine be determined by sprawl, traffic snarls and environmental degradation?

Or, will it resemble a thoughtful plan that emphasizes sustainability and quality of place?

Those are the questions that regional planners in greater Portland will seek to answer over the next three years.

It’s a regional planning effort, involving communities from York to Brunswick to Standish – and all points in between – that is being funded by a $1.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The effort will bring together nearly 26 agencies as well as the Maine Department of Transportation and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

As such, it’s the first of kind in Maine, according to Neal Allen, executive director of the Greater Portland Council of Governments.

“It’s an unprecedented collaboration,” Allen said.

The funding is one of 45 nationwide grants, totalling $100 million, that are part of the Obama Administration’s Partnership for Sustainable Communities, which seeks to ensure that policies, programs and funding consider affordable housing, transportation and environmental protection together.

GPCOG was the lead applicant for the grant. In its application, the group cited trends outlined in a 2007 Brookings Institution report, “Charting Maine’s Future,” which concluded that current growth trends weaken town centers, exacerbate sprawl and degrade rural landscapes.

Allen said the planning effort will involve a variety of public forums with stakeholders and residents.

“It will be a grassroots process,” he said.

Public presentations are expected to include two options for growth over the next 20 years, Allen said: One that allows current tends to continue and another that intentionally incorporates the six sustainability principals.

The desired outcome, Allen said, would be a plan that address future growth on a regional level, rather than a local level, covering areas like affordable housing and transportation.

“We need to start thinking regionally,” Allen said. “This is really a way to chart a future that is constant with the values those who live in Maine hold dear. If current trends continue, those will be lost.”

But the group is hoping for more than just another plan. Allen said the final product will also contain implementation strategies that can be incorporated by municipalities as well as ways to align federal, state and local resources.

“We do want to present this as an alternative to current trends, and the municipalities could choose the extent of their involvement,” Allen said, noting that a system of incentives may be recommended. “This is a chance for us to sit back at look at this more comprehensively.”

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or [email protected]

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