Judy Colby-George, of the Yarmouth-based consulting group Viewshed, speaks during the Harpswell Comprehensive Plan Task Force’s “visioning session” at Harpswell Community School on Saturday, Nov. 5. (DOUG WARREN PHOTO)

More than 100 people turned out on Saturday, Nov. 5, to learn about the effort that is underway to update Harpswell’s comprehensive plan and to offer their input during a “community visioning session” held at the Harpswell Community School.

Organizers seemed pleasantly surprised by the size of the crowd as they scrambled to add tables and folding chairs to the floor of the school auditorium to accommodate the crowd.

“Thanks for coming out,” said Al LeGrow, of Orr’s Island, chair of the town’s Comprehensive Plan Task Force. “We want to capture as much community input as possible as we develop our new comp plan, which is designed to help the town make important decisions about the future.”

LeGrow said the task force has already been meeting for a year and wants to bring the updated plan to town meeting in 2024 for approval. State law requires that communities update their comprehensive plans every 10 years. Harpswell’s comprehensive plan was last updated in 2005, so it is already behind schedule in that effort. Among other things, lack of an updated comprehensive plan could put the town’s applications for various grants at risk.

LeGrow then introduced Judy Colby-George, of Viewshed, the Yarmouth-based consulting group that is assisting the task force. She said the session was the first of “numerous” public meetings to be held to discuss the comprehensive plan.

“Today we want to take a look at the 30,000-foot level,” Colby-George said. “We want to know about what you think makes this place special. What do you want Harpswell to look like in 10 years? The comp plan can serve as a guiding document to that end.”

Colby-George then had those in attendance split up into small groups to develop lists of factors that inform the quality of life in Harpswell and areas that pose concerns about the future of the town. After about 20 minutes of discussion, group representatives offered a list of items that noted, among others, Harpswell’s natural beauty and access to the water, a sense of small-town community, the town’s history of volunteerism and the concept of “neighbors helping neighbors.”

Participants expressed concerns about the lack of affordable housing and community gathering places, including those for families with young children; lack of access to the water for clammers and other fisheries; a lack of services and job opportunities; and a general lack of diversity. One speaker noted that the crowd in attendance included few young families and members of the fishing community, long a mainstay of Harpswell.

After a short break, Colby-George had the attendees study an aerial map of Harpswell. She asked them to mark areas where they thought the existing character of various parts of the town should be preserved or changed and also to identify places where additions to the community character could possibly be created. The maps were collected, and Colby-George said the results would be compiled for future study.

Colby-George then outlined the next steps in the effort to update the comprehensive plan. She said the next in-person meeting — a “chapter open house” — will be held in the spring. She urged residents to go to the task force’s website to keep up to date on the plan’s progress and offer input.

Several speakers urged the session organizers to make every effort to reach out to the community to get the broadest possible feedback. One speaker suggested community workshops should be held in the different neighborhoods of town and that the Harpswell Community Television station could be used for outreach, along with the Harpswell Anchor, which received a round of applause for its community-building efforts. Another speaker suggested offering child care at public sessions to allow more young families to attend.

Colby-George said she and her team would take the suggestions into consideration. “We are very attentive to demographics, and we want to be sure to fill in the gaps so the comprehensive plan will represent all the people who have an interest in the town,” she said.