BETHEL – To get a wide sampling of people talking about development – and to bring both conservationists and developers into the same room – the Chamber of Commerce organized a conference Tuesday that focused on preserving communities while not deterring development.
The theme drew a large turnout to the Tuesday afternoon seminar. And the event managed to highlight the benefits of development while recognizing the need for controlled growth, which protects open spaces and curbs infrastructure expenses, and ultimately draws more development.
Alan Caron, who founded GrowSmart Maine, gave the keynote address and outlined how Maine is changing and growing. It’s fifth in the nation in its rate of growth proportional to its population. And most of that growth is occurring in rural areas, which have seen numbers surge from 400,000 to 700,000 people in the past decade.
Caron said 60 percent of new houses constructed since 2000 have been built outside of cities, and that Maine is second in the nation in loss of rural land.
In the past 25 years, 860,000 acres of land have been converted from rural to residential, he said. Most of the growth is occurring in southern and coastal areas.
After Caron stepped down, Newry and Bethel town planners, a banker, a real estate agent, Bethel’s town manager, land conservationists and a spokesman for developer talked briefly.
Darryl Brown, a consultant for developers, said in the past 35 years, he has watched Bethel retain its beauty while becoming more inviting as it added golf courses, a ski area and many restaurants and shops.
Brown mentioned, too, that as an amateur pilot, he sees Maine from an aerial perspective of 2,000 feet, and said it does not appear Maine is becoming too crowded too quickly.
And he said Maine has a harsh regulatory environment that can impede developers – he gave storm water, wetland, vernal pool and stream regulations as examples. Ultimately, though, he said natural resources and the market dictate what kind of development occurs. “The free market system is the final arbiter in land use,” he said.
Steve Wight, who spoke on behalf of the Mahoosuc Land Trust and Bethel Area Trails Committee, said a sense of place is in part created by the views from public areas. And the more developers build, especially on ridge tops to give their customers gorgeous views, the more the view for the general public is marred by new homes.
“In order for us to protect our views, we need to pony up,” he said. “We have to find a way to create a conservation fund we can all feed into as we do our business,” adding that some local real estate agencies contribute a portion of their sales to the Land Trust.
“The Trust thinks from the public’s perspective,” Wight said. “Developers think from the home-owners’ perspective.” But the home-owner quickly becomes the public.