A rainbow as seen to the east from the front steps of City Hall arcs over downtown Ellsworth while the sun nears the western horizon on Tuesday, June 14, 2022. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

A regional planning organization in Hancock County that lost all of its employees earlier this year is back to having a full-time staffer, necessary to meet the increasing demand for services it’s facing.

Averi Varney started as the Hancock County Planning Commission’s new planner earlier this month, breaking a five-month streak of no employees working at the commission office in Ellsworth.

“I’m really excited to get to know everyone in the community,” said Varney, a University of Southern Maine graduate who previously worked at an environmental consulting firm.

The nonprofit commission partners with municipalities around the county to help with economic development, identifying housing needs and creating long-term visions for their communities.

About 40 percent of the county’s towns have recently or are in the process of updating their long-term planning guides which guide decisions on new zoning that will stimulate or control growth. But many towns don’t have a planning department, so they need help. That’s where the commission comes in.

But the commission has been employee-less twice in the last four years, leading volunteers to try and cover the gap. The first time was in 2019 when acting director Sheri Walsh was arrested for embezzling more than $100,000 from the nonprofit. At the time she was the only employee at the commission.

In 2021, the commission hired Jarod Farn-Guillette as director to revitalize the organization, but he left for a Maine Department of Transportation job this spring. Another employee who was hired under Farn-Guillette left after six weeks because it wasn’t a good fit for them, leaving the commission without employees again.

While consultants and volunteers have helped bridge the gap in the most recent vacancies, commission board chairman James Fisher hopes that with Varney’s hiring, things can get back to normal with staff handling the bulk of the work.

“We’ve been getting work done, but we really needed a full-time person,” he said.

Finding someone to fill the open positions has been a struggle, and seems to be part of a paradigm shift for the planning world. There are about 20 vacant planning positions open across the state in both the public and private sectors, Fisher said.

Normally there are only a few positions, making the current environment harder for smaller offices like his to compete.

“It’s unprecedented,” Fisher said.

Local governments and other nonprofits have also struggled to fill high-level positions in Maine, with jobs often going unfilled for months.

The commission is still on the hunt for a director and the commission board is holding out for someone with planning experience at the regional level.