Conservation Strategies for Municipalities
Fold BwH into Your Comprehensive Plan
Comprehensive planning is a great time to revisit your town’s high-level priorities, including long-term goals for growth, recreation, and conservation of fish, wildlife, and plant habitat. Some best practices that other towns have employed include:
- Create a habitat blueprint.
Leverage the data and assistance of state agencies, conservation organizations, and land trusts to create a landscape vision for your town. The Beginning with Habitat toolbox (PDF) can help you get started and serve as a detailed guide, and BwH maps help by layering habitat data from several different sources.
- Create or join a land trust.
If your town doesn’t already have a land trust, either create one or ask a neighboring land trust to expand its service area. Learn more about the Maine Land Trust Network.
- Take an inventory.
Inventory all town-owned lands, including those that have conservation potential but aren’t designated as such, and review the management plans for those properties.
- Gather public input.
Ask residents to identify areas that are most important to them, including areas with unmapped natural resources, open space values, rare geologic features, historical sites, scenic views, farms, trails, etc. Identify which areas are highly valued both by the public and the land trust and focus conservation efforts on those.
- Look for inconsistencies.
Look at existing and proposed growth areas. Do growth areas conflict with large, high-priority habitat blocks by extending into them? What about infrastructure? Often, road or utility plans contribute to habitat fragmentation, degradation, or destruction in undeveloped blocks.
- Create an Open Space Plan for your town.
Work with a local land trust to inventory local parcels that could, when combined with other private or public lands, create large habitat blocks. If you don’t have a Conservation Commission, form one. They can help implement your town’s Open Space Plan and actively manage open space.
- Collaboratively design corridors.
With help from local planners, land trusts, and state agencies, evaluate the status of habitat protections and recreational opportunities on lands in your town, and design greenways and corridors to connect parcels. You may also want to add additional lands to create large blocks of conserved, high-value habitat. By creating wildlife corridors, you can protect species’ abilities to move freely between riparian and upland habitats and to migrate as needed in response to climate change. When possible, adding trails to these corridors provides a recreational bonus. Also consider the importance of working forests and agricultural lands in providing corridors and help support these landowners to keep these spaces open.
- Create a land bank account.
If your town has a Capital Improvement Plan, include a land bank account that can be added to annually and used to acquire habitat and open space lands.
- Plan shoreland development carefully and collaboratively.
Create a local planning process that evaluates shoreline development as it relates to habitat loss, and offer alternatives to single-lot development of shoreline areas. Meet with town recreation officials, local land trusts, and conservation organizations and discuss combining riparian habitat conservation with recreational water access.
- Engage your landowners. Develop a database of local property owners who host Significant or Essential Habitat. Inform them of the value of riparian habitat, high-value plant and animal habitats, and large undeveloped habitat blocks, and give them the support they need to retain and improve these areas.
- Make sure they know what they have. One way to do this would be to send them an informational mailer (from the land trust and the town) explaining their conservation options and resources. If the important habitat is forest land, you could connect large owners with licensed foresters who know how to manage for both habitat and timber. You could also host workshops exploring publications like Focus Species Forestry and Forestry for Maine Birds (Maine Audubon).
- Promote state incentives. Reach out to landowners who might benefit from a Current Use tax status, such as the Open Space or Tree Growth Tax Programs. Suggest they examine estate and tax planning with the Maine Coast Heritage Trust or an attorney in order to conserve large parcels of land they own.
- Offer local incentives. Municipalities can layer more incentives on top of what the state has to offer. Town-administered incentives could include purchases of development rights, a transfer of development rights program, waiving lot size requirements in exchange for habitat protection, and open-space tax reduction programs.
- Offer recognition. Make sure you publicly recognize landowners who choose to maintain open space through any of the programs above.
- Engage the general public. Include land trust activities in the town Annual Report, display land trust newsletters and brochures at the town hall, library, and public events, and make the Beginning with Habitat maps and documentation readily available.
- Engage legislators. Invite legislators to tour your town’s high-value habitats, explaining their connection to your community's way of life and discussing legislation and policies that would make it easier to conserve them.
Enact Habitat-friendly Regulations
- Reconsider local ordinances. After adopting a new comprehensive plan, form a committee to revise regulations accordingly. If protecting riparian and large habitats is part of the plan, then it may make sense to add habitat block buffer or curtain requirements to your subdivision or site plan review process. Or if the plan is to protect habitats in rural areas, you can add zoning and subdivision provisions that prioritize open space and habitat connectivity. You could also opt to require low-density or cluster development on properties with high value habitats. In the most rural parts of town with the largest intact habitat blocks, very low density requirements (one unit per 10 to 25 acres) might make sense.
- Create a review process. Towns can revise local ordinances to require MDIFW regional office review as well as MNAP botanical review when proposals might conflict with mapped resources. And when organizing open space with a goal of keeping habitats intact, try to get your local land trust or conservation organization involved early in the process.
- Prioritize the irreplaceable. One state subdivision criterion is that "the proposed subdivision will not have an undue adverse effect on the scenic or natural beauty of the area, aesthetics, historic sites, significant wildlife habitat identified by MDIFW or the municipality, or rare and irreplaceable natural areas, or any public rights for physical or visual access to the shoreline." Consider how your town can deliver on that promise, including whether it makes sense for you to adopt standards stronger than state minimum guidelines for their shoreland zones.
- Allow new and creative low-impact land uses. Adopt zoning that expands the allowed uses of farmland or woodlots, such as educational or recreational services, food sales, hay and sleigh rides, etc.
- Fund the land bank. Consider adopting an impact fee program with funds partially or fully allocated to protecting open space. Similarly, for smaller subdivisions or those within which a land set-aside is not appropriate, you can edit the subdivision ordinance to allow developers to pay a fee in lieu of setting aside land, and then dedicate the funds to a land bank or open space fund.
- Coordinate with neighboring towns. Habitats don’t follow political boundaries, so it can be helpful to work together with officials from neighboring towns, land trusts, planning groups, conservation organizations, and/or your regional planning commission to:
- Review maps of high value habitat and/or open space plans
- Discuss conserving large blocks of habitat across town lines
- Discuss consistent regulations for shared habitats and waterways
- Develop mutual water quality protection plans for shared watersheds
Acquire land rights or ownership
- Identify opportunities and funding sources. Coordinate land trust priorities with town priorities, and explore opportunities to protect habitat via conservation easement or fee ownership. You can raise acquisition funds through public appeal, designate town funds, or apply to private or public funding sources. Maine provides several statewide funding programs including the Maine Natural Resources Conservation Program, Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund, and the Land For Maine's Future Program. The US Fish & Wildlife Service also administers some Federal funds through its Gulf of Maine Coastal Program. Private organizations with funds include the Maine Coast Heritage Trust and The Nature Conservancy (ask about private land trust protection efforts). The Sportsman's Alliance of Maine also has a trust to own and manage high value game habitat.
- Know your options. Some ways that towns and land trusts can take control of property include:
- Fee ownership. If a property with high-value habitat is on the market, especially if it is not adequately protected through zoning, the town’s select board, planning board, conservation commission, and local conservation groups can work together to purchase it. If it’s not on the market, you could consider buying a right of first refusal.
- Development rights. These can allow you to manage large undeveloped blocks as fish, plant, and wildlife habitat.
- Conservation easements. These can stipulate no development and allow public access for recreation if compatible with the land.