Building a future in Unity

By John Piotti | Jan 30, 2014

Last Saturday in Unity more than a hundred townspeople gathered at the performing arts center to think about our community’s future. It was as diverse a group as this town ever brings under one roof — folks whose families have lived here for generations and folks who moved here last year; elderly couples and young couples who came with their small children; store owners and farmers and college students; people I know well and people I’ve never seen before.

This “visioning session” was organized by the town’s comprehensive plan committee. Though I’m a member of that committee, my role in the event was modest. The heavy lifting was done by others. All I did was show up and serve as one of several “scribes,” recording remarks made by the participants in the small group sessions, which covered six subjects: community spirit; town governance; economic opportunities; farming; natural resources; and the community’s relationship with Unity College.

The committee recognized that these six subjects did not cover everything, but chose them after a community survey suggested that they were key. The day prompted broad discussions, touching on hundreds of different topics, from hiking trails to chain stores to bulletin boards to pot holes to water quality to opportunities for our kids.

As a scribe recording what was said, I was struck by the fact that everyone spoke. (I give credit to the structure of the event, which not only divided the large crowd into small groups, but systematically engaged every person.) I was also impressed by the fact that everyone was civil, earnest, and thoughtful.

It was the kind of day that made me proud to live in this town.

Unity has a long history of community planning, stretching back over twenty five years. In 1989, the town approved its first comprehensive plan — one of the few communities to do so before such planning was required by state law. But in this case, being ahead of the curve had a downside: Unity’s plan did not conform to all the requirements in Maine’s growth management law that passed soon thereafter, so Unity needed to go back to work. In 1993, a new plan was passed. And then in 1995, Town Meeting enacted a new land-use ordinance designed to implement the policies articulated in that plan.

That’s the factual history. It leaves out all the detail, work, and pain. I co-chaired the comprehensive plan committee that developed that ordinance with local dairy farmer Dick Perkins, who later bought his uncle’s farm in Charleston — Unity’s loss. For the two dozen townspeople who worked on that ordinance, it was an exhausting and often frustrating process. We held 22 public meetings in the single year before we brought the ordinance to Town Meeting.

Helping a community articulate a plan for its future is not easy. But it’s even harder to implement pieces of that plan through a community’s land use ordinance.

For instance, most people in town may want Main Street to retain its existing character; but once you begin to work on the specific ordinance requirements designed to achieve this goal, it gets rather complicated. Presumably, nobody wants “retaining Main Street’s character” to mean that nothing new can ever be built or that nothing that now exists can ever be changed. So how do you deal — in objective ordinance language — with new development, building additions, expanded parking lots, additional signs and the like? How do you get specific enough about what’s allowed to realize the community’s articulated goal for Main Street, without being so prescriptive that landowners are put off by the requirements (or even by just the complex detail of the language)?

From my experience, you can get a large group of people to agree to a general principle only to lose them in the details. Yet going from “general to specific” is exactly what crafting an ordinance requires. You need to strike a balance: too little specificity, and the ordinance doesn’t serve the goal; too much specificity, and you lose support. Of course, it’s complicated further by the fact that every person has his or her own view of what the right balance is, and because people’s views change over time.

The only way to appreciate the range of viewpoints and get a sense of the times is to engage the community, and to do so openly and objectively, without imposing bias. The comprehensive plan committee has taken firm steps in this direction with its initial survey, last weekend’s visioning session and the future outreach it envisions. It also helps that the committee is open to all participants — an essential feature for any group attempting to do this kind of work.

At this stage, this committee is only working on a new comprehensive plan; it may or may not end up also crafting a new ordinance. (That decision has not yet been made.) But regardless of who does what, the fundamental point is the same: any new land use ordinance needs to follow from a new comprehensive plan. It is difficult — perhaps impossible — for any subset of the community to develop a new ordinance that respects the will of the people without first going through a broad community planning process.

Those of us who worked on Unity’s 1993 plan and the ordinance that followed have been pushing for a new comprehensive plan for years. We not only recognized that these old documents are out of date, but that any revisions need to be supported by a thorough community process. But past Selectmen have resisted the idea of a new plan, primarily because of the cost. (A state-approved plan must collect considerable data and meet certain standards that necessitate professional assistance.) It’s a testament to the people of Unity that Town Meeting last year overwhelmingly approved $20,000 for this purpose — a considerable sum for a small town. I thank our selectmen and others for seeing the value of this investment. Unity’s children and grandchildren will thank you as well.

Last Saturday’s visioning session was not the first event of this type held in Unity. Back in 1994, the committee from that era organized a community forum in the parish hall of the church. (At that time, Unity did not have its current community center or performing arts center.) That event of twenty years ago drew about a hundred people. Many came in skeptical, but left enthused. The feel of the day — the feeling that remained with many of us long thereafter — was that Unity could craft its own future. That forum empowered us, first, to plant street trees, and then, within a year, to form Unity Barn Raisers. And soon the Barn Raisers were building trails, supporting local businesses (under the banner “Serving More Local Needs, Locally”), and renewing downtown buildings, including transforming one vacant structure into a new community center.

We sometimes forget how far our community has come or that so much of the good came about because local people dared to dream together about what the future could hold.

Twenty years later, I’m hoping for nothing less.

John Piotti of Unity runs Maine Farmland Trust. His column “Cedar & Pearl” appears every other week.

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