Main Street, Rockland, Maine. Credit: Lauren Abbate / BDN

ROCKLAND, Maine ― Rockland hopes to hire a full-time planner to better equip the city as it looks toward the future, but it will come down to budgeting.

After facing many issues regarding zoning, land use and housing, city officials feel it’s time to bring on a full-time planner.

“One reason the council wants to pull the trigger and make sure we hire a planner is because of everything that has happened and a planner could have helped guide us through it,” City Manager Tom Luttrell said. “It’s just going to bring another level of expertise into the city to help guide us into the future.”

The city first looked to add a full-time planner to city staff for the 2019-20 budget year, but only allocated enough funding for the position to be created in early 2020. The position was eliminated before it was filled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The City Council will vote later this month on whether to approve a proposed $14.6 million municipal budget for 2021-22 , which includes $113,000 for a full-time planner. During the budget proposal process, the council voted unanimously to include funding for the position in the final proposal, Luttrell said.

If the budget is given the final approval by the council, Luttrell said the city will likely begin advertising for the position during the last week of June and hopes to hire a planner by the end of the summer.

Despite being the service center for Knox County, Rockland — with a population of about 7,200 — has never had a full-time planner. Just up the coast in Belfast, a city of about 6,700 which holds a similar role as Rockland in Waldo County, a full-time city planner has been on staff for years.

City planners handle a wide range of city business focused around how a city is laid out and how the city can make changes and guide development to better serve its residents and accommodate growth.

“The number one thing a planner can bring is exposure to the changing demographics and needs of people who live in communities and then you take that forward and plan the town with that in mind,” Maine Municipal Association Communications and Education Services Director Eric Conrad said.

In the past, Rockland has relied on its code enforcement office staff to handle some of the responsibilities that a planner would fulfill, including being the intermediary between the city and prospective developers, Luttrell said. The city has also contracted with independent planners.

But as the city looks to update its land use ordinance in the wake of a controversial cellphone tower getting the go-ahead, Luttrell said a planner will be able to help identify what changes should be made.

“We’re just looking at how we address things in the future with a planner to better our code,” Luttrell said.

It’s been a growing trend among mid-sized municipalities in Maine ― towns with populations around 4,000 and larger ― to add planners to municipal staff, according to Conrad. The addition is driven largely by demographic changes that are causing towns to look at how amenities and zoning might need to change to meet the needs of their population, Conrad said.

For towns that have relied on select boards or city managers to direct planning, “that’s just not cutting it anymore. So Rockland is not alone,” Conrad said.

Over the past two decades, Rockland has undoubtedly changed. The city has shed its 20th century reputation for being a gritty waterfront town and has developed a new reputation as the “Arts Capital of Maine.”

As the city has grown, officials have been trying to figure out how to balance its newfound identity as a tourism destination with the needs of people who call the city home year round.

A new comprehensive plan has been in the works to help identify and outline the city’s needs and wants in terms of growth and where city officials should focus resources. That plan will likely be finished and accepted by the city council this summer, according to Luttrell.

Between the updated comprehensive plan and the addition of a full time planner, Luttrell said the city will be better equipped to navigate future growth and development.

“We’re hoping that we can hire a planner that can guide us into the future, being progressive and staying on track with how the council and the city wants to grow,” Luttrell said. “Not grow overnight, but grow smart and take things into consideration.”