Redrawing the map

Like other areas within 100 miles of major cities, the southern coast of

Maine has seen an explosion in population growth and new housing developments,

thanks to a steady influx of Boston commuters and retirees drawn to its

quiet towns and picturesque views.

But the area is also home to diverse wildlife and their fragile habitats,

a situation that makes figuring out where to put new human residents a challenge.

"We are seeing this incredible conflict," said Liz Hertz, senior planner

in the Maine State Planning Office. "Towns are becoming increasingly concerned

as fields get eaten up by subdivisions, and streams and brooks that used

to support fish don't anymore."

Town officials are beginning to demand more and better information from

state agencies to help them figure out where environmentally sensitive habitats

exist in outlying areas and what they need to do to better conserve and

protect them.

"We're as busy as we've ever been in this office, and we definitely

felt we could use some assistance," said Judy Bernstein, town planner for

Kennebunk, a town of nearly 11,000 residents that has experienced more than

30 percent growth since 1990.

That much-needed aid recently came in the form of a pilot geographic

information system (GIS) tool that offers planners a faster, more visual

way to determine how a proposed subdivision would affect, say, the local

Blandings turtle population.

"Our hope is that this is going to provide towns with the natural resource

information that will not only conserve the habitats around their areas

but help conserve a matrix of habitats across the whole state so that we

can maintain the species composition that makes Maine what it is," said

Hertz, coordinator of the project, which is called the Habitat-Based Approach

to Open Space Planning. If the pilot is deemed successful in southern Maine,

it will be extended throughout the state.

Towns developing comprehensive plans have long been able to request

data from the Natural Areas Program within the Maine Department of Conservation,

the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, and the Maine Audubon

Society — all of which kept databases filled with information about the

location of large blocks of land; buffered areas around streams, ponds and

wetlands; and functioning habitats.

But typically, the information that came back was laid out on paper

maps or in text format, hadn't been compiled and was not very specific to

a town.

"A lot of times people had to hand-draw maps and lay one map on top

of another map and then another map to get a full view of what was there,"

said Paul Schumacher, executive director of the Southern Maine Regional

Planning Commission, which will provide GIS support to smaller towns that

don't yet have the capability. "It was very cumbersome, plus it didn't work

well when it came to public presentations because it's not a good format

or process to try and educate people about what you're doing and why you're

doing it."

The new project includes data from the three state organizations plus

modeled habitat data from a University of Maine researcher, along with a

wetlands inventory and characterization data. It provides towns with a single

digitized map currently available on CD-ROM, although it eventually will

be accessible via the World Wide Web.

The map was developed with a regional perspective using a U.S. Geological

Survey 1:24,000 base topography map overlaid with three layers of information:

habitats, hydrography and unfragmented blocks of land.

Although faced with the daunting task of pulling together reams of data

and figuring out how to display it, the biggest hurdle was cultural, Hertz

said. Seven different organizations had a hand in the project, and keeping

everyone happy proved challenging.

"We were able to work through it, though, because everyone remained

committed to this overarching goal of developing a single map and giving

towns more and better information in a way that they could make sense of

it," she said.

The information couldn't come at a better time for Kennebunk, which

is set to begin work on its new comprehensive plan. Bernstein said the new

GIS tools will not only make it easier for her to gather information and

present it to the public but because the technology allows for quick updates,

she'll always be armed with the latest and greatest natural resources data.

"It will just make us that much more efficient and effective," she said.

Hayes is a freelance writer based in Stuarts Draft, Va. She can be reached

at hbh[email protected]


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