Southern Maine is uniquely poised to advance meaningful climate action through bold leadership by our towns and the innovative approach of the Southern Maine Regional Sustainability and Resilience Program. Climate change is one of the most pressing issues of our time. Municipalities are on the front lines, and southern Maine communities are already experiencing the effects of stronger, more frequent storms, rising seas and extreme temperatures. One 2018 nor’easter caused $3 million in damage in five York County coastal towns. Strapped by limited budgets, insufficient staff capacity and a lack of technical expertise, Maine municipalities find planning for climate change a tremendous challenge.

Long Sands Beach in York shows damage from a storm in March 2018. York is one of six York County towns that are banding together to mitigate and adapt to the effects of changing climatic conditions. Photo courtesy of Southern Maine Planning and Development Commission

To address this challenge and drive progress, six coastal communities – Kittery, York, Ogunquit, Kennebunk, Kennebunkport and Wells – joined with the Southern Maine Planning and Development Commission in 2019 to establish the state’s first Regional Sustainability and Resilience Program to help the towns address climate change impacts and advance sustainability and resilience efforts, work that was beyond the reach of the towns individually.

Regional coordination, planning and action are imperative for addressing issues and impacts that span municipal boundaries. In Maine, regional planning organizations like the commission are in a unique and valuable position to assist municipalities, provide technical assistance and facilitate the flow of information and resources from state agencies to communities. The Sustainability and Resilience Program exemplifies the benefits of a regional approach by tackling climate change, enhancing coordination and stretching the dollars of limited municipal budgets.

In just its first year, the program secured over $300,000 in grant funding to support sustainability and coastal resilience initiatives in the region, including a National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grant to develop the first regional coastal resilience plan in the state. The program is also successfully leveraging federal and state funding to accomplish needed projects, including sea-level rise vulnerability assessments for each town. Further, it is enabling municipal collaboration on climate action, including the coordination of a regional bid for a municipal solar contract to reduce municipal energy costs and emissions, and it is facilitating peer learning among municipalities on common priorities such as municipal fleet electrification. Lastly, the program’s home within the commission allows it to employ a holistic approach to climate action, working in partnership to apply a climate lens to transportation, economic development and land use planning.

The state of Maine has laid out ambitious but necessary goals for combating climate change. Achieving those goals – such as electrifying the power sector, modernizing buildings and encouraging development and economic activity in areas less vulnerable to climate impacts – will require substantial action by Maine’s municipalities, action that is beyond most towns’ and cities’ existing capacity. Southern Maine’s Regional Program serves as a model for other areas of the state, and beyond, for leveraging limited resources and addressing capacity gaps to tackle the climate crisis. The state’s four-year Climate Action Plan, “Maine Won’t Wait,” released in December, notes that a lack of capacity, expertise and funding are consistently cited by municipalities as reasons why they are not able to address their climate risks. Further, it identifies that statewide, only 11 percent of communities have a town planner on staff; observes that “regional approaches to planning and pooling resources are … cost-effective ways to build capacity,” and recommends that the state encourage and support coordination among regional organizations for climate action and empower regional resilience efforts. SMPDC’s program offers a roadmap for leveraging limited resources and for other regions and state leadership to put Maine on a trajectory to achieving its goals and making our communities more resilient.

The climate crisis demands immediate action at all levels of government to help protect the people, places and heritage that we so value. Regional efforts, like those of SMPDC, that enable local action to mitigate and adapt to the effects of changing climatic conditions will undoubtedly drive our preparedness and success as a state. The Southern Maine Regional Sustainability and Resilience Program is helping to drive climate readiness in our municipalities; preparing them to be more resilient in the face of climate change, and serving as a model for meaningful climate action for the rest of Maine and beyond.

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