A view of Betsy Cove in Brooksville on Monday. Brooksville is one of several towns in Hancock County that are working on long-term planning efforts as the county faces climate change, rising housing costs and the influx of vacation rentals. Credit: Ethan Genter / BDN

With a growing number of vacation rentals, a push for development and concerns over climate change changing what municipalities have to plan and prepare for, about 40 percent of Hancock County towns are in the process or have just finished updating their comprehensive plans.

Though it’s not the most lively topic, comprehensive plans are key to smart development.

Where ordinances and town codes provide the letter of the law, comprehensive plans act as a kind of north star. They provide the legal underpinnings for zoning and have been used in Maine since 1918. Though encouraged, plans are not required by state law.

“They are a good document to help make municipal decision-making easier,” said Jarod Farn-Guillette, the director of the Hancock County Planning Commission.

At least 14 municipalities of the 37 located within Hancock County are making updates to theirs.

The plans, which are approved by the voters, take stock of what a community has and provide direction on the economy, housing, natural resources, recreation, capital investment, transportation and land use. It’s a process that can be arduous, sometimes taking more than a year to complete. It’s also one that isn’t done on a set schedule. In fact, some towns haven’t updated their plans in decades.

“For a long time, planning was an afterthought, almost a four letter word so to speak,” Farn-Guillette said. “Many of these towns’ comprehensive plans are pushing 20 years out of date.”

There was a push in Maine for the plans after growth and development started shifting toward rural parts of Maine in the 1970s and 1980s. The towns weren’t equipped to handle such sprawl and a law was passed in 1988 that recommended comprehensive plans to direct growth away from rural areas. By 2003, 218 towns and cities in Maine had adopted plans.

Farn-Giullette believed many towns were undertaking the planning process now for similar reasons. He pointed to the influx of people moving to the area during COVID, an aging population and the need to balance development and natural resources – all during an era of climate change.

In Deer Isle, the push on development has led to a fresh look at the comprehensive plan, according to Jim Fisher, the town manager of Deer Isle and a board member of the Maine Association of Planners.

“Real estate markets have been really hot and we’re seeing increased pressure for seasonal housing and short-term rental housing,” he said.

Climate change and sea level rise have also been a major motivator. Without a plan, those big issues are even harder to take on, he said.

In nearby Sullivan, efforts are underway to create the town’s first comprehensive plan. A meeting is scheduled for early 2022, according to town manager Stacy Tozier. Both Tozier and Winter Harbor town manager Cathy Carruthers said their towns hoped their planning efforts could help tackle the shrinking year round population and explosion of vacation rentals in their communities.

“Big changes are going on with the town,” Carruthers said.

The plans are normally designed to cover about 10 to 12 years, though even well-maintained plans only help if their recommendations are implemented. The plans can go unnoticed if things are running smoothly but interest in them tends to pick up when controversial proposals come up.

That kind of situation is happening in Tremont, which is working on updating its 2011 plan.

Interest in the plan intensified when residents recently realized recommendations in the old plan that were never enacted could have stopped a controversial campground proposal in town, according to Town Manager Jesse Dunbar.

“I think this comp plan is going to be one of the most read and participated in in recent history,” Dunbar said.

Comprehensive plans aren’t just for guiding a town in its decisions. They also can help municipalities land valuable grant money for improvements.

“You don’t have a plan, you lose points,” said Michele Gagnon, the town planner in Bar Harbor, another town working to update its plan.

Brooksville is on the verge of wrapping up its plan and Selectman John Gray said that plans have become almost a prerequisite for some funding opportunities.

“If you’re looking for money, they’re going to look at your comprehensive plan,” he said.

Brooklin, a quiet coastal town with no land use ordinances except those required by the state, last considered a plan in 2003 that was not adopted. Selectman David Reiley felt that long-term planning was important as the town has seen dramatic shifts in that time. Brooklin is increasingly being filled with second-home owners, which has driven up home prices and made the community less affordable, he said.

While the plan doesn’t force any changes, it can ring alarm bells on issues such as unaffordability and the lack of waterfront regulations in the community, Reiley said.

“It isn’t a mandate to do anything,” he said. “I think that just the exercise of going through this raises awareness among the people of what direction the town is headed.”