During the past two decades, the city of Rockland has changed exponentially. The city clawed away from its reputation for being a gritty waterfront town in the 20th century and has since developed a new reputation as the “Arts Capital of Maine.”
But as the city grows, city officials have been trying to figure out how to develop Rockland into a place to accommodate newcomers and people who have always called the Lime City home.
Beginning next year, Rockland City Hall will be enlisting the help of a full-time city planner to help wade through those waters.
“The planner will be able to come in and find that [middle ground] to help move the city forward, and hopefully we will see a lot more progress,” City Manager Tom Luttrell said.
Despite being the service center for Knox County, Rockland — with a population of about 7,200 — has never had a full-time planner. Just up the coast in Belfast, a city of about 6,800 which holds a similar role as Rockland in Waldo County, a full-time city planner has been on staff for years.
City planners handle a wide range of city business focused around how a city is, first, laid out, but more broadly how the city can make changes to better serve its residents and accommodate growth, according to Eric Conrad of the Maine Municipal Association.
Most cities of Rockland’s size, if not smaller, have city planners on staff, Conrad said. Larger cities often employ multiple planners.
A current trend among Maine towns and cities is to add full-time planners to the municipal government makeup, Conrad said. Because Maine is the oldest state by median age, Conrad said towns and cities across the state are looking at how to keep young residents and entice people from away to move here.
“One of the best ways to do that, maybe the best way to do that, is to make the city as vibrant and as well-built as you can,” Conrad said. “Planners play a key role, if not the key role, in that process.”
While Rockland has transformed into a more vibrant place in recent years, much of the planning work has been done by existing municipal staff or through contracted services with part-time planners, Luttrell said.
Rockland currently enlists assistance from outside planners to update its comprehensive plan and the city’s waterfront redevelopment plan. Both of those documents serve as templates for how the city should grow and develop — key documents for a city planner.
Luttrell said Rockland officials hope a city planner will be better able to facilitate public discussions about hot-button development issues, such as neighborhood layouts.
Earlier this year, the Rockland City Council passed, and then rescinded, an ordinance that revamped the city’s residential zoning code in an attempt to free up space for more housing as the city — like elsewhere in the midcoast — faces a shortage of affordable housing. But city councilors faced sharp criticism for making the changes from residents who feared it would change the makeup of neighborhoods.
The city is currently grappling with how to create an ordinance that would regulate where group homes, like a prisoner re-entry house on Talbot Avenue, can be established. Rockland Code Enforcement Officer John Root tendered his resignation last week after facing criticism from the public on his decision that the re-entry home would not have to go before the planning board based on existing ordinance.
The city is still working on a job description for the city planner position, but Luttrell said the person will be heavily involved with navigating areas of development where there is contention between the public and city staff.
Conrad said this role of being a facilitator typically falls on city planners, who should be having conversations with residents and business owners about what they want and need from the city in terms of planning and development.
“A city planner may have more time to do that in a systematic and professional way than a city manager or elected officials. A city planner is a really important job in this day and age,” Conrad said.
Rockland city councilors approved establishing the city planner position when they passed the 2019-20 municipal budget last month. However, Luttrell said city officials were only able to fund the position for half of the current fiscal year, meaning a city planner won’t be in place until January. Luttrell said Rockland will likely start advertising the position in the fall.