May 28, 2024

Numbers say Maine sprawl has hit a stall

Maine’s aging population and a host of other factors, including volatile energy prices, appear to be combining forces to discourage suburban sprawl, an analysis of census data shows.

The data studied by the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram also suggest a gradual reversal of long-standing development patterns that contributed to sprawl.

Figures show that the steady flow of people away from the cities during the 1990s has ebbed dramatically since 2000 in nearly two dozen of Maine’s service-center communities. Some of those communities, such as Bangor, Waterville and Belfast, have begun gaining population.

Bangor’s 33,181 population declined by about 5 percent in the 1990s, but has grown by 1 percent since 2000. Flat population in Belfast (population 6,355) during the 1990s has been succeeded by a 6 percent increase in the 2000s. Caribou – which by 2000 had lost 12 percent of its 1990 population of 9,415 people – has grown by 2 percent since then.

A Maine State Planning Office analysis of every community in fast-growing York and Cumberland counties shows that the rapid pace of development in suburbs and outlying towns has cooled in recent years. An example is the York County town of Dayton, which grew by more than 50 percent from 1990 to 2000. So far this decade, Dayton’s growth rate is less than 12 percent.

Many public officials and residents have long frowned upon unplanned sprawling development, which consumes farm and forest land and increases the need for schools, public safety and other services.

Planners have encouraged towns to enact zoning that directs growth to concentrated areas within communities and preserves open space. But these ideals often conflict with individual property rights and the choices of a motorized society in which large homes on big lots are considered desirable.

Trends suggesting a sprawl stall could continue, analysis of preliminary census figures for 2010 suggests.

Alan Caron, president and founder of the anti-sprawl advocacy group GrowSmart Maine, said he believes the trend will outlast the current recession, which like other economic downturns brings a decline in building permits. Changing demographics already are reducing the number of young families moving to remote suburbs in search of open space, cheaper land and lower taxes, he said.

Last summer, $4 a gallon gasoline prices heightened awareness of the cost of commuting to job centers. Long-term effects of the current fiscal situation could erode funding for school aid, road construction and other government spending that paves the way for the march of development to the countryside, Caron added.

“You take those three things in combination, and there’s no going back,” he said.

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