The Maine Legislature is in a race to address the state’s housing shortage.

While it’s clear Maine must build to provide affordable homes for a growing population, we also must be considerate in our approach. Heedless development can lead to sprawl: disjointed housing scattered over an unnecessarily large area. Sprawl makes for disorganized neighborhoods and degraded wildlife habitat.

Thankfully, more housing doesn’t have to mean more sprawl. Maine Audubon and our partners are working in Augusta to pass housing bills that would increase inventory while conserving wildlife habitat and Maine’s rural character. Growth and conservation can coexist, but only if we’re smart.

The answer, then, is “smart growth,” a planning strategy that prioritizes efficient land use, community connectivity and environmental stewardship. At the heart of smart growth is the deployment of compact, mixed-use development. Unlike conventional urban sprawl that devours vast expanses of land, smart growth results in tighter, walkable neighborhoods where residential, commercial, and recreational spaces coexist. This approach limits the unnecessary encroachment on natural habitats on the outskirts of towns and results in better-planned neighborhoods in which to live and work.

The tenets of smart growth are straightforward. According to GrowSmart Maine, the 10 principles of smart growth are: mix land uses; create a range of housing opportunities and choices; preserve open space, farmland, natural beauty, and critical environmental areas; strengthen and direct development towards existing communities and infrastructure; make development decisions predictable, fair, and cost-effective; encourage community and stakeholder collaboration in development decisions; and more. To many these seem like obvious goals, but they require municipalities to plan ahead for the future they want.

Maine Audubon and other smart growth advocates want to help communities think ahead. What do you want your town to look like 30 years from now? 50 years from now? There are many resources already available for towns to create the community they want. The State of Maine’s Beginning With Habitat program is a key one. Beginning with Habitat was created in 2000 to consolidate natural resource information and provide towns with practical tools to incorporate conservation into land use planning. Simple, interactive maps help communities across the state identify the locations of streams, wetlands, high value plants and animals, large undeveloped blocks of habitat and habitat connections, conserved areas, and many other environmental factors they should consider as they identify how and where housing should be focused.


Data from the Beginning With Habitat maps have been used to facilitate conservation-friendly development across the state, for both large and small-scale projects. Siting for a new housing development in Biddeford, for example, used these maps to help avoid vernal pools and a population of the state endangered Blanding’s Turtle. On the other end of the spectrum, 12towns in the Sagadahoc region used Beginning With Habitat to develop a “conservation blueprint” for the region that helped them focus their conservation efforts.

As helpful as Beginning With Habitat is, not all towns have the capacity to plan, or the expertise to incorporate smart growth principles. That’s where legislation can help. We’re supporting L.D. 1976, for example, which aims to update and modernize Maine’s vital Growth Management Law, which directs the land use management and comprehensive planning processes used by municipalities across the state. We also support L.D. 1787, which requires state conservation agencies to convene a diverse stakeholder group to help guide a comprehensive overhaul and modernization of Maine’s subdivision laws.

But in the rush to pave the way for more development, some proposed bills miss the mark. For example, we oppose a bill that would fuel unchecked, hasty and large-scale development by helping larger subdivisions avoid the Department of Environmental Protection’s critical “site law” review. We’d regret expediting housing development by weakening vital environmental protection laws.

Maine is grappling with a lack of housing and a growing population, but we’ve got room to grow. By not only growing quickly but growing smart, we can create the types of neighborhoods and communities that we want while also protecting wildlife in the state that we love.

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