Harpswell Comprehensive Plan Task Force member Mary Ann Nahf speaks to a group of about 60 attendees during a workshop about climate change on Sept. 12 at Harpswell Community School. The town is gathering feedback from residents as part of its comprehensive planning process. (J. Craig Anderson photo)

Dozens of residents shared their concerns about how climate change might affect Harpswell at a recent workshop hosted by the town’s Comprehensive Plan Task Force.

Those concerns include reduced access to groundwater, loss of working waterfront, a weakened local economy, invasive terrestrial and marine species, and negative impacts to local housing and transportation, among others.

 About 60 residents attended the workshop, held Sept. 12 at Harpswell Community School. Attendees were divided into groups and asked to go through a series of questions designed to help them prioritize their biggest climate change fears and preferred mitigation strategies.

The workshop was led by the Yarmouth-based land use planning group Viewshed, which the town has hired to oversee its first comprehensive plan update in 18 years. The town will pay Viewshed nearly $93,000 for its work, according to the contract, with the bulk of funds coming from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package.

Viewshed owner and director Judy Colby-George said that while state law doesn’t require municipal comprehensive plans to include a section on climate change, the town has made preparing for climate change a priority.

“We’ve decided to weave it into all aspects of the comprehensive plan,” Colby-George told attendees at the workshop, part of a series of public events focusing on various aspects of the plan.

She prompted the audience to consider the potentially wide-ranging local effects of climate change, such as its impact on water resources, ocean levels, precipitation, species shifts, waterfront access and impacts to working waterfront infrastructure. 

Other possible impacts cited by Colby-George include more frequent flooding of roadways, increased strain on local emergency services, and more rapid weathering of town buildings and other infrastructure.

Workshop attendees participated in a series of exercises that included group discussions about current climate change impacts, Harpswell’s greatest climate-related challenges, ways the town can become more sustainable, and how Harpswell can support residents in their personal efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change.

Attendees also were asked to discuss possible climate change mitigation goals, policies and strategies that Harpswell could adopt, and to rank them based on community value and feasibility. Organizers of the event urged attendees to share any novel ideas they might have.

At one of the six group discussion tables, Harpswell resident John Anthony noted that he already has experienced a loss of access to one of his favorite local food sources.

“I used to be able to go down to the rocks and get mussels anytime I wanted — they’re gone now,” Anthony said. “I’m not a soft-shell clammer, but I suspect there have been changes there, too.”

Residents participating in the discussion disagreed on the extent to which human-caused climate change is affecting the Gulf of Maine, but all agreed that changes are happening.

“Regardless of the reason, the Gulf of Maine is warming rapidly,” said local resident Tim Tear.

Discussion group members offered a number of suggestions for Harpswell’s climate mitigation and adaptation strategy, such as applying for grants to reinforce town landings and other essential working waterfront infrastructure. 

Attendee Monique Coombs, a local resident who is also director of community programs for the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, suggested the town could incentivize public easements to offset climate-related losses of waterfront access. She also recommended giving the town’s harbor master more resources and personnel.

Tear noted that preparing for climate change is expensive, and that needed improvements will put a strain on Harpswell’s budget, to which Anthony suggested the town conduct a cost-benefit analysis of spending priorities.

“Maybe it’s worth spending gobs of money if you’re going to get gobs of return,” Anthony said.

He added that encouraging more local farms could help Harpswell become more self-reliant and resilient in the face of environmental changes.

During a table discussion about electric vehicle charging stations, attendee Mark Sgantas said he would like to see investment in local power grid upgrades  in Harpswell.

“I would like to see money put into the grid system,” Sgantas said. “You can’t have all these charging stations if you don’t have a good grid system.”

Attendee Matt Gilley, a lobsterman who lives in Cundy’s Harbor, said one of the town’s top priorities should be preserving waterfront access. He also suggested using land set aside for preservation to build more affordable housing.

The climate change workshop was one of three such events, with the other two focusing on working waterfront and land use concerns. The waterfront workshop was held Sept. 19, and the land use workshop is scheduled for 6 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 10, at Harpswell Community School, 308 Harpswell Islands Road.

Colby-George, the comprehensive planning consultant, said attendees’ ideas and opinions would help inform a draft comprehensive plan update that will be voted on by residents at the next annual town meeting in March. It will be the first update since 2005.

This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Mark Sgantas’ name and more accurately reflect his support for investment in power grid upgrades.

Have a comment or news tip? Email J. Craig Anderson at craig@harpswellanchor.org.