Public participation adds steam to Topsham Comp Plan update

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TOPSHAM — The town planner said a long weekend of activities intended to involve the public in the town’s Comprehensive Plan update process turned out to be worth the effort last month.

The “Plan Your Topsham” event – which took place at the former Lower Village fire station Oct. 19-23 – featured public sessions and roundtable discussions, along with a block party, live music, a bean supper, outdoor movie and other family-friendly attractions.

The program “was received in an incredible manner,” Town Planner Rod Melanson said in an interview Nov. 16, praising the positive nature with which residents tackled subjects like streets and mobility, arts and culture, “mom and pop” economic development, and open spaces and trails.

Melanson lauded the work of the ad hoc Comprehensive Plan Committee in organizing the event, with help from town staff, volunteers, and donations and sponsorships.

“It was really pretty cool to see all of that pull together,” he said.

The event collected “instantaneous feedback” from about 250 participants, including families, through the presentation of visual concepts for areas of town like Main Street and Topsham Fair Mall, Melanson noted.

That input will help the Comprehensive Plan Committee as members spend the early months of 2018 building the document’s “data chapters” – population, demographics, natural resources – of the revamped 2005 document, which was last updated five years ago. Public meetings to check in with the community will follow in the spring.

The town hired Maine Design Workshop as a two-year planning consultant for $87,000 this spring. The update is due to go to a Town Meeting vote in May 2019.

“We’re doing … a more readable, more user-friendly approach, where we’re identifying all of the big ideas from (last month’s) public input session,” Melanson said. “What were the common themes, what were the common threads, that people kept repeating during these sessions.”

Identification of streets in need of improved safety for motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians alike was one major priority residents suggested. Reducing congestion and keeping vehicles moving along major thoroughfares like Route 196, while calming traffic in other areas to better enable pedestrians to cross the street were also mentioned, Melanson said.

On the subject of transportation also came an interest in improved local and regional mobility through means such as public transit and carpooling.

“One of the highest responses was, people love Topsham for many reasons,” Melanson said. “One of those reasons being the proximity and access to the coast, to Portland, to Augusta, to the mountains. … The ease of getting places is a huge reason why people are here.”

Access to nature and ocean spaces and the establishment of more community gathering spaces were also key elements among the list of priorities residents expressed.

Clearly, much food for thought in the months ahead.

“How you maintain or enhance these things is all going to be what we’re working on,” Melanson said.

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.