Friday, February 12, 2021

Windham Town Council adopts open space master plan with eye on future

Windham has adopted a new Open Space Master Plan which
will guide the town in identifying high priority properties to
protect or acquire, provide land stewardship guidance, identify
ways to expand connectivity between open space assets and
examine ways to create potential recreational opportunities for
future generations of residents. PHOTO BY ED PIERCE     
By Ed Pierce

After months of development, public input and careful consideration of the town’s future growth and potential needs, Windham town councilors unanimously adopted the new Windham Open Space Master Plan during a meeting on Tuesday evening.

The Open Space Plan will serve as a guide for the town to identify high priority properties to protect or acquire, provide land stewardship guidance for existing open space lands, identify opportunities to expand connectivity between open space assets, neighborhoods, and trails and to outline programs, ordinances, and partners that could be instrumental in securing the future of the identified high priority properties, said Windham Planning Director Amanda Lessard. The plan recognizes that rural character is crucial to Windham’s identity as a community. It takes a proactive stance regarding preserving community character and ensures that Windham’s most cherished open spaces will remain available going forward despite strong residential growth pressures.

Lessard said that the Windham Open Space Master Plan is the culmination of nine months of work and is the town’s first comprehensive look at Windham’s open space network of conservation and recreational assets.

“The consulting team of North Star Planning and Aceto Landscape Architects worked with town staff to gather input from the community, including town committees and various stakeholder groups, to develop conservation and recreational goals to preserve Windham’s rural character and function, protect the environment, and provide diverse and equitable access to recreational opportunities,” Lessard said. “The plan will have long term implications on the Town of Windham as it will guide future decision making as it relates to managing and improving existing properties and locating and acquiring new properties for conservation, playgrounds, sports fields, and trail systems.”

Specific new open space policies contained in the plan create a framework to guide town leadership well into the future.

Some of those policies include acquiring new properties and developing new facilities, evaluation and improvement of existing properties and open-space assets and creation of opportunities to enhance and expand uses and programming at existing open space and recreational facilities in Windham, and to update existing town policies and practices focusing on recreation and open space in Windham. 

The plan recognizes that the Windham community supports acquisition and conservation of properties that provide recreation opportunities, public access to the water, protect significant habitats and water quality, and maintains the rural character of the town. It notes that the town should be prepared and ready to act when opportunities arise to grow the network of open space and recreation properties. It establishes goals of increasing access to water for residents, including lakes, ponds, and rivers; create new points of access for boating and swimming on Windham’s lakes and ponds; develop linked, long-distance trail system; complete the Mountain Division Trail to Westbrook and lead to creation of formal access to the water and along the Presumpscot and Pleasant Rivers for hand-carry boating access and additional trails for fishing and recreation; places an emphasis on large-scale conservation efforts for East Windham and Southern Windham lands; and to develop neighborhood-scale playgrounds and public spaces in underserved areas.

Under the new plan, other goals for Windham include evaluating all existing town properties for potential to contribute to open space and recreational priorities; maximizes the diversity and mix of activities and uses available in each town activity center; formalizes and protects existing open space and recreational assets; create management plans for town properties; and initiate a signage program for Windham park properties and trailheads.

The new Open Space Master Plan does not identify specific properties for acquisition, but rather provides the criteria needed for the town to make smart and strategic decisions when identifying properties that would fulfill the needs of the community. To that end, new goals also include enhanced protections for surface waters and wetlands, especially in the watersheds most at risk of development and for streams and rivers; developing and maintaining open-space partnerships and relationships; educating and incentivizing private property owners to keep lands as undeveloped open space; and reorganizing some town committees and volunteers to clarify their roles and ensure proper support from town staff. Another goal is the purchase of development rights to keep properties in private ownership, most applicable in situations where the land is used for production, like farming, pasture and hay fields, and woodlots. It emphasizes that the town should be working to make all landowners aware of the “current use” tax programs designed to keep lands in their existing, and undeveloped states.

Across Maine, open space planning has evolved into a crucial topic to towns and municipalities as development impacts the environment and strains open space resources in rural areas and major population centers in the state. Effective open space planning preserves valuable natural wetlands and vital wildlife habitat from Maine communities for future generations while helping to formulate policies used to protect environmental corridors and natural ecosystems.

Lessard said the new Open Space Master Plan aligns with the desire of Windham residents and the Windham Town Council to encourage compatible growth in the future by managing aspects of growth and development and provides long term economic benefits by helping the town avoid costly mistakes of misusing available open-space resources. <

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