Last week the Windham High School was the site for an open community meeting to discuss the Windham Comprehensive Plan that was presented by planning director Ben Smith. Listening were 50 residents, including some members of the planning board. This presentation was a 2016 update going back to 2014 when the Windham Town Council approved a team to draft an update to the 2003 version of that plan. The 21st Century Downtown Plan and Economic Development Plan had four “big things” that were outlined and took center stage.
“Four big things rather than a long laundry list over the next ten years,” Smith told the audience. The top goals were change the game for Windham’s Growth Areas: North Windham, Windham Center and South Windham, create a North Windham to be proud of, invest in rural Windham to keep it rural, and focus on community facilities and programs.
To define a comprehensive plan, Smith continued, “At its core it is a land use plan, an inventory of existing conditions and how we get where we are as a community. Out of this plan we want to move beyond the obvious.”
The mission statement is a tour through Windham in 2030. In the mission statement, Windham continues to evolve as a community. Windham is one community, but it is a community of different neighborhoods and different areas, each with a distinct character. As the town grows, this diversity is maintained and even reinforced. This provides the opportunity for a range of residents and businesses to call Windham home.
We are a proud, dynamic town. We are a town where young families and seniors can find community and live healthy, fun and engaging lives. We are a growing, exciting community that still retains the qualities of a small town. We take care of each other and we respect and celebrate our heritage. We support our schools, local arts and cultural events and the community that they create.
Windham continues to grow and develop but our development is balanced by the preservation of important open space and agricultural land to maintain the rural character of our Town and to provide scenic, recreational, and economic benefits for our residents.
Smith went on to explain the current rate of growth and the resulting potential obstacles. “A 2014 census showed that Windham exported over 7,500 workers every morning to go to work outside of Windham while importing just 4,500. In 2004, there was 7,776 labor force in Windham with 5,500 jobs. By 2014, 1,100 workers were added along with 100 jobs. The population growth is expected to be between 19,000 and 22,000 by 2030. This will have an impact on traffic, development and schools. Based on the 2010 numbers, we are already at that projection in just 5 years,” said Smith.
There’s a complete population shift. “Residents are growing older. Young people are now buying starter homes which equates to more housing developments. Some towns that were once very rural are in a transition. Balancing growth with conservation is the key and special places in town should be protected moving forward. We want to continue to improve as a community, and be a place where we are proud to say ‘I live in Windham’ or ‘my business is located in Windham’,” continued Smith.
Lasting for roughly 30 minutes the meeting was followed by a question and answer period along with opportunities to meet with the design team and answer questions which will be tracked and talked about in the next steps.
Suggestions included making profitable landscapes for small land owners. Examples presented were areas on Route 202 where land owners had either converted acreage into growing hops, or a field blooming with blueberries.
One of the biggest issues raised was the subject of taxes. “How do we do all of this without raising taxes? My taxes keep going up but my wages do not,” said one citizen. “Moving forward the bigger part of that is not trying to attract businesses like big box stores. The majority of businesses in Windham are low paying. That’s why people like me work outside of Windham. I couldn’t afford to live here if I also worked here.”
In conclusion, Town Manager Tony Plante said, “what strikes me is the degree they’re interconnected. Making progress in one of the Big 4 can help the progress in the others, if we actually take proactive steps, focus development where we want it more, and less where we don’t want it. It would be both keeping rural Windham rural and creating a North Windham to be proud of.”
“Many of the questions I have heard over the last couple months of reviewing the highlights of the plan’s recommendations fall into a couple broad categories. One is ‘how do we get started with all of this? And, how do we pay for all of this?’ Not all of the recommendations and investments suggested in the plan need to be made all at once, up front. The plan looks out a decade or more, and covers a lot of ground because of the time frame involved. Secondly, while it is true there are some important big ticket projects recommended, other recommendations are low cost or no cost changes related to how we do things as a town, or are recommendations on how to save money or increase the value of the tax base,” said Smith.
As to how we get started, there is an old saying that “a journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step.” The purpose of the plan is to establish a vision for the community that we can all work toward and also to provide some recommendations on programs and policy work to start us down the path toward meeting that vision,” Smith continued. “From a practical standpoint, the plan recommends the establishment of an implementation committee to work on many of these initiatives for the town council, in addition to the work that the council, town staff and volunteers can do on their own.”
The last step will be to make final revisions and get the plan certified. The final draft will be submitted to the town council around the end of the year, according to Smith. For more on the plan, visit www.windhammaine.us/DocumentCenter/View/1581