Back in the 1980s, when Maine saw the first wave of a residential housing development boom, cities and towns created conservation commissions to serve as adjunct advisory bodies to planning and zoning boards. Twenty years ago, there were some 200 such commissions, but that number has dwindled to about 60, with some of those inactive.
Conservation commissions still have a part to play, and can do so in many cities and towns. And they can do so without the expenditure of tax money, and without adding anti-development hurdles. In some towns, such as Camden and Rockport, conservation commissions have served as the community’s “environmental conscience,” as Jane Lafleur, executive director of the anti-sprawl group Friends of MidCoast Maine put it at a recent meeting.
Former U.S. Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall said that conservation commissions should exist to “identify conservation problems, to lay issues before the people, to organize public support and the to take the initiative to solve the problem.”>/p>
In Maine towns, conservation commissions seem to work best when they are assigned an informal role. Rather than be part of the review process for a housing subdivision or waterfront hotel, the commissions may, under their own volition, identify a sensitive resource that may be threatened and research a possible solution.
The commissions seem to draw residents with expertise and time to dedicate, and do not require large budget appropriations. The conservation commission in the Lincoln County town of Bremen last year was given a budget of $250, and this year it is requesting $655. Camden’s commission has an annual budget of between $500 and $1,000.
One part of the mission of conservation commissions, land acquisition and protection, was taken over by local and regional land trusts, which may explain their decline in number. While this has meant the more dramatic land purchases and deed restrictions are off the agenda for the commissions, it can be seen as liberating them to do more targeted, focused work for a town or city.
Conservation commissions have been effective in educating community residents about the cost of sprawl and unchecked development. Their effectiveness may be undermined if they weigh in on every controversial building, road-widening or cell tower proposal, but if they choose their battles and provide technical arguments, the commissions can help sway public opinion.
Towns, especially coastal communities, with their wealth of retirees from professional fields, would do well to create and empower such “environmental consciences.”>/p>