The schooner Alert sails across Harpswell Sound, with Orr’s Island and the Cribstone Bridge in the background. (Mark Miskill photo)

It can be a good thing, before going out, to glance in the mirror and see what kind of face you’re presenting to the world.

A closer look at the features reflected in the glass might even tell you something about where you have been and where you might be going.

For a town, the comprehensive planning process can serve as that mirror. And it’s been quite a while since Harpswell took a good look at itself.

So, what is a comprehensive plan? In some ways it’s easier to say what it’s not. It’s not a set of rules or regulations. It’s not enforceable by law. You can think of a comprehensive plan as a guide for a community’s future that:

  • Lays out a vision for growth and change in the long term.
  • Aligns decision-making with that vision.
  • And helps prepare for ongoing and future challenges and needs.

Harpswell drafted its first comprehensive plan in 1974 in response to the state’s shoreland zoning law. It updated the plan in 1981, 1987, 1993, 2002 and, most recently, in 2005. A lot has changed in Harpswell and in Maine since then.

The town has maintained its heritage as a fishing community while also morphing into a vacation destination and a bedroom community for larger towns and cities. It is wrestling with the cost of housing and the impact of development on prized natural resources.

Maine’s State Planning Office was eliminated in 2012 by then-Gov. Paul LePage and oversight of comprehensive planning was shifted to the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.

Comprehensive plans are not mandated by the state now, but they do matter.

“To be eligible for certain grant programs, and enact certain ordinances, such as a building cap ordinance, a municipality must have a comp plan approved by the voters,” said Harpswell Town Administrator Kristi Eiane. “It must also be approved by the state … to ensure the plan includes all required elements.”

Why has it been so long — 18 years — since the last update to the Harpswell plan?

“There’s been a lot going on in town and, frankly, we were focused on other areas,” said Kevin Johnson, chair of the Harpswell Select Board. “When they blew up the State Planning Office, some of the impetus was lost. But with the growth we’ve experienced since the pandemic, we need to look at where we are and where we’re going.”

Recognizing that need, voters in 2022 approved using $90,000 in American Rescue Plan Act money to hire a consultant to help bring the plan up to date. The town had already formed a 12-member Comprehensive Plan Task Force, chaired by Allan LeGrow, of Orr’s Island, which started meeting in November 2021. The Viewshed consulting firm, of Yarmouth, was brought on board to work alongside the task force.

Fishing boats dot the waters of Cundy’s Harbor. (Mark Miskill photo)

Judy Colby-George is the owner of Viewshed and the point person for the comp plan update. She also did some work on mapping and implementation for the 2005 version. “It’s a perfectly fine plan, it’s just old now,” she said. “The plan needs to be changed to match new realities and ideas. The town is different now.”

Colby-George said work on the new plan, which will be presented to voters at town meeting in 2024, is still in its early stages. Organizers held a townwide “visioning session” in November that attracted more than 100 residents. The task force is meeting each month and developing “chapter” updates on key aspects of the plan. It will present those updates to the public during an open house at Harpswell Community School from 4-6 p.m. on May 24.

As the chapters are developed, they will be posted on the comp plan website at, where residents and summer visitors are encouraged to register and share what they love about Harpswell and their hopes for the town’s future.

To get a sense of what the new comp plan could look like, it might be worthwhile to look at the 2005 update and changes that were made — or not — in the wake of its adoption at town meeting.

The current comprehensive plan is 223 pages, with a first part broken up into seven “chapters,” or areas of interest, plus a future land-use plan, and a second part crammed with facts, figures, charts, and lists of historical and natural resources to support the findings and recommendations of the planners.

The seven chapters are: Community Character, Marine Environment, Groundwater Resources, Natural Habitat, Housing, Marine Economy and Public Services.

The goals and recommendations in the various chapters of the 2005 plan make it clear that the town was already wrestling with the challenges of maintaining its character in the face of increasing development and a changing economy and environment.

For example, the Community Character chapter called for amending ordinances to create growth areas and increase density in village areas. Selectman David Chipman recalled: “We put a lot of effort into studying it and held public hearings, but in the end, there was doubt it would be good. Overall, most of the suggestions in the Community Character section were rejected.”

However, there was more success in implementing recommendations from other parts of the plan. Proposals in the Marine Environment chapter resulted in the development of a Coastal Waters Management Plan in 2010 and an Outdoor Pesticide Control and Fertilizer Use Ordinance in 2016. New requirements for septic systems were put in place after a 2008 study that was called for in the Groundwater Resources chapter.

Mary Ann Nahf is a member of the current task force and was also a member of the Conservation Commission that developed the town’s Open Space Plan in 2009, following a recommendation in the Natural Habitat chapter. “These are all important issues, but that was a big one in preserving the natural resources of Harpswell, in partnership with the Land Trust,” she said.

Julia McLeod, executive director of Harpswell Heritage Land Trust, agrees. “Harpswell’s Open Space Plan has driven HHLT’s conservation efforts,” she said. “Our top priority for new conservation projects has consistently been to protect land in the focus areas of the Open Space Plan.”

A pair of birds fly over Mackerel Cove, Bailey Island. (Mark Miskill photo)

Eiane, the town administrator, noted that the 2005 comp plan raised the issue of the town needing to be prepared to provide more public services. “A key one that comes to mind for me is the implementation of 24/7 paramedic services (through Mid Coast Hospital) and supplementing the services of our volunteer fire-and-rescue departments,” she said. “Another is having a more defined capital plan, which has helped the town anticipate and better position itself for long-term investments and expenditures.”

The cost and variety of housing in Harpswell was an area of concern highlighted in the 2005 comp plan and remains a major one today. Nahf and Chipman noted the creation of an Affordable Housing Committee and the construction of the Hamilton Place subdivision off Shore Acres Road, Harpswell Neck, in 2008. However, Eiane acknowledged more needs to be done.

“We have been slow to figure out how to adequately address workforce, affordable and even senior housing, which are topics that are noted in the 2005 plan,” she said. “And is there more we could have done to support our working waterfront? Conceptually, we are supportive, but in terms of actions and policies, have we done enough?”

That is a topic of particular interest to current task force member Monique Coombs, who comes from a fishing family.

“Harpswell is in a place of transition, with a lot of challenges and opportunities on our working waterfront,” she said. “But we need to determine what are the tangible steps to help preserve the working waterfront and deal with related issues like parking, while also thinking five years down the road — and beyond.”

That’s the charge that Coombs and the rest of the task force have taken on. Colby-George and her team will help guide that process while recognizing the challenges that lie ahead. “We have to be as realistic as possible and learn how to have difficult conversations about what the future of Harpswell could and should look like,” she said.

Colby-George promised a much more visual comp plan, along with an implementation plan for top priorities, both short and long term. She urged anyone interested in the town’s future to attend public information-gathering events and to go to the task force’s website, register, and share their opinions.

Eiane said she has high hopes for all the time and money being put into the comp plan. “I would like to see a vision and plan that is truly representative of the community — something that the town can coalesce around and policies that the town will be willing to implement.”

Doug Warren, of Orr’s Island, retired from a career as an editor at the Portland Press Herald, Miami Herald and Boston Globe. He serves as vice president of the Harpswell News Board of Directors.

This article is part of “Development and the Harpswell Environment,” a Harpswell Anchor special report.