Mainers are preparing for a once-in-a-generation chance to build lasting prosperity. As we consider how to invest the significant COVID relief funding that is coming through the federal American Rescue Plan, we must merge the state’s plan to extend internet access across Maine with a comprehensive look at what our communities can be a generation from now.

Maine will receive $120 million in federal funding to invest in broadband infrastructure. In addition, state, county and municipal governments will receive $1.2 billion in COVID relief funding to be spent by 2024, with broadband as one of the allowable uses.

Affordable internet access does not guarantee a sustainable future, but the lack of it will stymie any other efforts to advance economic opportunities for all. This is the reasoning behind the state’s Broadband Action Plan. However, bringing internet access to existing homes and businesses increases the potential for new residential or commercial development far outside of a town or city center, be it a quiet village center, a vibrant historic downtown or the heart of a city. We need to be mindful not to encourage this sort of sprawling growth.

The impacts of sprawl on our economy and environment, municipal budgets, personal wellness and quality of life can be more negative than positive. Yet it can be difficult to understand the cost of sprawl because of its incremental nature. Sprawl (also described as “low-density development”) and its impacts often go unrecognized until it’s too late to reverse the damage.

The impacts of sprawling growth include:

• Municipal expenses increase because of demand for additional road maintenance.

• School budgets expand to accommodate additional and longer bus routes.

• Residents remain dependent on their vehicles to shop and get to work, often requiring a family to manage the costs of owning more than one vehicle.

• Farmers and forestland owners bear the costs of misunderstandings and opposition for even best practices as new neighbors adjacent to working lands object to smells and noise.

• Personal wellness can suffer when connections with neighbors are made more difficult by sprawling development, requiring more car time than walking and little opportunity for casual interactions.

How can we provide access to broadband and at the same time manage new development to minimize sprawl? Critical to success are multiple-community planning and engagement as well as local leadership. Mainers must engage within their communities as well as collaborate across regions, encouraging partnerships between private-sector and public entities to fully take advantage of broadband opportunities. The best example of this is the Downeast Broadband Utility, the first – and only – municipally owned fiber-to-home broadband utility in Maine. The infrastructure was built and is owned by the eastern Maine communities of Calais, Baileyville and Alexander, allowing multiple service providers to offer internet, television and telephone to residents.

To minimize sprawl, community planners are key players, bringing together members of the community to consider pieces of their town’s land use puzzle, and ensuring that provisions are in place to manage new development – as desired by the community. It is important to be mindful of current community needs while also anticipating what future generations of Mainers will be looking for in their hometowns.

Our active participation is essential now to ensure that extending essential internet access affords the positive benefits communities deserve, while avoiding the creeping cost of sprawl.


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