Harpswell resident Dorian Taylor (left) discusses the town’s comprehensive plan update process with Judy Colby-George, owner and director of Yarmouth-based planning consultant Viewshed, at a May 24 open house at Harpswell Community School. (J. CRAIG ANDERSON PHOTO)

Completing the first major update to Harpswell’s comprehensive plan in nearly two decades will require input from a wide variety of local interests, said officials at an open house on Wednesday, May 24, designed to explain individual components of the plan and gather residents’ feedback and suggestions.

Harpswell residents have been invited to participate in a series of public events to go over the plan in detail and offer their input. The process kicked off in November with a “visioning session,” followed by the May 24 open house, with more events planned for the coming months.

The recent open house was held at Harpswell Community School and organized by Viewshed, a Yarmouth-based planning and design firm that has been hired by the town to oversee the new plan’s creation.

Viewshed owner and director Judy Colby-George said the open house format gives residents a chance to discuss their ideas and concerns with those involved in the planning process, without requiring them to sit through a series of long lectures.

Several stations were set up inside the school’s gymnasium, one for each major component of the plan, with informational materials and experts on hand to accept comments and answer questions. Residents came and went throughout the two-hour event, with a few dozen moving through the different stations at any given time. 

Colby-George said breaking up the plan into “inventory chapters” allowed residents to engage with areas of the plan that interest them while forgoing others, “because everybody’s not interested in every chapter.”

Major plan areas highlighted at the event included population and demographics, housing, transportation, land use, agriculture and forestry, natural resources, recreation and open space, freshwater resources, and the town’s marine and overall economies. All information presented at the event is available online at bit.ly/Harpswell2024, including the option to fill out a virtual comment card.

For each chapter, information was provided about the town’s current situation and organizers’ concerns about the future. For example, the chapter on housing explained that affordability is a major concern, as is a lack of diversity in the housing options available.

It noted that Harpswell’s lack of affordable housing affects young families as well as older adults, and that prior efforts to promote more affordable, higher-density housing haven’t produced much in the way of results.

Open house attendee Julie Moulton, who is on the town’s Comprehensive Plan Task Force, said that as someone who has struggled in the past to find affordable housing in Harpswell, the issue is of particular concern to her.

“Workforce housing is almost impossible to find (in Harpswell),” said Moulton, who works with Harpswell Aging at Home. “We’ve got lobstermen living in Topsham because they can’t afford to live in Harpswell anymore.”

Concerns about the future of Harpswell’s environment and natural resources were also front and center at the open house. Environmental economist Rachel Bouvier, a Portland-based consultant and educator, was one of the experts on hand to talk to residents and answer their questions.

Bouvier, who helped put together some of the chapters for the comprehensive plan, said residents have approached her with wide-ranging concerns about issues including sidewalks, childcare access, seasonal migration and solar farms.

“We got a pretty good turnout (at the open house),” she said. “There are more people here than we expected.”

At each station, residents were given the option to rate Harpswell from one to 10 on each of the major plan components in the past, present and future, assuming that nothing changes. They were asked to compare that hypothetical future to the one they’d like to see, and to leave specific comments and suggestions on sticky notes.

“We need to understand what the community thinks about these critical areas over the next 10 years,” said Allan LeGrow, chair of the Comprehensive Plan Task Force.

The task force plans to continue hosting similar events throughout the rest of the year, he said, with the goal of presenting the finalized comprehensive plan update to the community in March 2024. The group also will continue to solicit resident feedback online and at various town meetings, LeGrow said.

“This plan has to reflect what the community believes,” he said. “We’re trying to understand that through events like this.”

LeGrow said he’s encouraged by the enthusiasm residents have shown so far for participating in the process. He hopes to add the opinions of seasonal residents and visitors at future open houses that have yet to be scheduled. 

The purpose of a comprehensive plan is to lay out a vision for growth and change in the long term, align decision-making with that vision, and help prepare for ongoing and future challenges and needs. It is intended as a guide for future planning decisions and isn’t legally binding.

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 developing 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.

Comprehensive plans aren’t required by law, but Harpswell officials believe in their importance and say they want the next update to accurately reflect the wants and needs of today’s residents.

“This isn’t just a handful of people that makes the decision,” said Harpswell Select Board Member David Chipman, who attended the open house. “It’s the town – we have to do it together.”

Have a comment or news tip? Please contact J. Craig Anderson via email.