Next year the town of York will decide if it should continue its growth cap — a limit of eighty-four residential building permits per year — that was enacted in 2000 and renewed in 2003. Growth caps have become as popular as they are controversial, as southern Maine struggles to balance the influx of people who want to build a home here against the desires of others who want to control that growth.
Growth caps, however, are not the answer to development pressure. One valid argument against caps is that they tend to lead to smaller building projects — a developer might only put up two or three houses, an individual would build just a single house. In towns that mandate minimum lot sizes of several acres, the result is sprawl. Nonetheless, seventeen of the twenty-nine towns in York County do have growth caps.
Supporters of caps maintain that putting a limit of the number of new homes that can be built is the most efficient way to ensure that a town's population does not increase at a rate that overwhelms existing services, like schools and fire and police departments. Yes, growth caps do serve as a temporary barrier to growth. A better way, however, to manage growth and control sprawl is to encourage higher density development in some areas of a town, and setting aside open space in others. Condominium housing, for instance, can absorb growth in a town without spreading the need for resources — like school bus trips — over a wide area.
Southern Maine is also an attractive area for retirees and empty nesters. Condominiums or clustered housing often fits their low-maintenance housing needs while the owners do not typically require a high level of services.
An equitable workaround to growth caps is requiring that developers pay impact fees to offset the cost of new services. A developer in Wells last year had sued over that town's cap, but agreed to pay a $15,000 impact fee for each of the 131 units in his housing and golf course plan.
Growth caps also tend to push development outward, as builders stymied by caps in one town move on to towns that don't have caps. Sprawl, once again, is the result.
Growth caps are temporary fixes that contribute to larger problems down the road. Comprehensive planning to encourage a mix of densities is a preferable way to manage growth, fight sprawl, and utilize the efficencies clustered housing offers, including snow plowing, school transportation, and police and fire protection.
—Portland Press Herald
More highway signs and informational brochures and better training for tourism industry employees are helpful ideas, but they are not going to draw more tourists to Maine. Better accommodations and easily accessible recreation opportunities will.
The state has spent years studying and talking about nature-based tourism. The result of a yearlong $80,000 contract is a report from a Texas-based consultant that focuses on enhancing and selling the "Maine Woods experience." The company, Fermata, offered a long list of recommendations. Many of them focused on themed scenic drives, visitor centers, and guide books. Less attention was devoted to more important issues such as the availability of high-quality lodging and better promotion of the Maine Guides network.
One especially useful part of the Fermata work was to inventory available tourism offerings in three areas of the state — the Maine Highlands around Moosehead Lake, the Western Mountains Region, and Down East. The points of interest, including state parks, trails, and historic and cultural sites, are even ranked according to their expected level of interest.
This can be coupled with the findings of another consultant, Longwoods International. In a recent report, the Canadian company found that Maine surpassed the national average for visitors rafting, kayaking, mountain biking, hiking, hunting, fishing, and enjoying scenery. Maine was found lacking when it came to first-class hotels and sophisticated restaurants.
This means that Maine is a nice place to visit, but it needs more amenities. If tourism officials want to increase tourism spending, they need to give visitors something to spend their money on. Increasingly, tourists — especially the baby boomer generation, which finds itself with time and money on its hands — want to do something outdoors and then retreat to a well-appointed lodge or hotel. They don't want to backpack for a week, but a guided hike to a scenic vista or a guided kayak trip to an island would be very appealing to these travelers. When they're done with the outdoors for the day, they don't want to head back to a remote cabin to cook steaks on an open fire. They want a gourmet meal and a comfortable bed.
Maine has these kinds of accommodations, but not enough of them, especially away from the coast. A bill to provide tax incentives or other financing to improve existing and construct new high-end lodging is slated to be reintroduced to the legislature in January. Such financial help should encourage the development of much needed tourist infrastructure.
A sign telling tourists where to go might help. But there had better be something for them when they get there.
—Bangor Daily News
Expanding the Hunt
A proposal to widen the area where moose can be hunted in Maine appears to be a sound move by the state's fish and game regulators. With the number of Maine's moose on the increase, there is an increasing danger of car-moose collisions. Allowing hunters to harvest a larger proportion of the herd in central and parts of coastal Maine, where it is growing, will somewhat reduce the danger to motorists and boost the state's income from license fees.
Right now, the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife conducts an annual lottery for people from Maine and away to get permits to hunt moose, which are valid only in the northern two-thirds of the state. With the current herd at an estimated 30,000 animals, the state is considering expanding its present 2,895 permits by another 100 to 300 permits, partly for a six-day season in October in parts of Kennebec, Oxford, Somerset, Piscataquis, and Penobscot counties that corresponds with the moose season elsewhere in the state. Another six-day season in late November or early December, corresponding with either the last part of the regular deer season or the first part of the muzzleloader deer season, is also proposed for parts of Kennebec, Hancock, Knox, and Waldo counties.
While some people object to hunting Maine's official state animal, this state has a long tradition of outdoor sports that certainly includes taking moose, as long as the overall herd can replace its losses. Since the moose permit system is popular, provides revenue, prevents overpopulation, and finances other wildlife support measures, there is good reason to not only allow it to continue, but to expand it where the numbers of moose permit.
—Maine Sunday Telegram, Portland
Dirigo Health Questions
Is Maine's Dirigo Health program working? Ask Governor John Baldacci and members of his administration and they'll give you an enthusiastic "yes." Others, however, including many in the state's medical community, aren't so sure. Recently the governor, members of the Dirigo Health board of directors, and other supporters celebrated the two-year anniversary of the law that established Dirigo. They claimed the program has seen "remarkable success in moving toward the goal of achieving universal access to all Maine people, improving the quality of care delivered to all of us, and reducing its costs."
But, by any measure, enrollment in the program has not come even close to original projections, at least so far. In the early days of Dirigo, its boosters were touting a program that would be appealing enough to enroll as many as 31,000 participants for its first year of operation. Currently, by the governor's count, enrollments number 8,100, with another 3,000 on a waiting list.
The avowed goals of Dirigo are to extend health-care coverage to those not currently covered by insurance and to provide less expensive health insurance coverage to Maine employers wishing to provide that benefit for their employees.
As for claims that Dirigo has lowered the overall cost of health care in Maine, the jury is still out. Those supposed cost savings were to result largely from voluntary profit and expense caps and reductions of bad debt and charity care at the state's hospitals. But some analysts contend that the so-called savings are, at best, a slowing of the rate of increase in costs that otherwise might have occurred.
A key component of Dirigo is the subsidy to employees for their share of the coverage if their incomes are below designated levels. The program has proven attractive to self-employed Mainers, especially those qualifying for subsidization of their premiums. But for many employers, the cost of insurance through Dirigo is roughly equivalent to group plans already available. Additionally, Dirigo requires coverage of part-time as well as full-time employees, adding to the employer's total cost. It also puts employers in the awkward position of encouraging employees to apply for premium concessions from a government agency.
DirigoChoice, the insurance component of Dirigo Health, was primed by a one-time infusion of $53 million in state funds. But Dirigo has burned through millions of dollars in the past two years, hiring staff, employing consultants, conducting surveys, holding meetings around the state, and advertising to recruit enrollees.
Health care is certain to be a continuing major issue when the legislature reconvenes in January. And with a gubernatorial race now unfolding, there's little likelihood that the legislature and Governor Baldacci will agree on any new approaches.
This newspaper believes that Maine employers should be freed of legislative mandates regarding the level of coverage that must be provided. That would allow employers, employee groups, and individuals and hospitals to negotiate benefit programs and levels of coverage acceptable to all parties, perhaps without many of the bells and whistles now required by the legislature.
We believe that, if permitted to negotiate health insurance policy terms acceptable to their employees, many more Maine employers will seize the opportunity to add health insurance to the benefits provided to their employees. Absent such a change, Dirigo will continue to struggle for survival, and ultimately fail.