2012-06-29 / Front Page

Virtual reality helps city plan

By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer

South Portland’s Comprehensive Plan Committee has worked for three years to put together a long-term plan for the city’s future. Last week, the committee looked to gather public input before it finalized the document.

To help with that goal, the committee turned to the web.

South Portland residents had the ability to fill out a virtual survey that went live on the city’s website on Wednesday, June 20 and stayed up through the rest of the week. Then, on Sunday, June 24, the city held a virtual forum, where residents could watch a video presentation by Planning Decisions President and committee member Mark Eyerman. At the conclusion of the video, attendees could type in questions online, which Eyerman answered verbally.

Fifteen people signed up for the forum, said committee member Rob Schreiber, who also is chairman of the city’s planning board. Schreiber said despite the sparse turnout, he still saw the virtual forum as somewhat successful.

“There have maybe been 50 virtual public forums in the entire country. As far as I know, nobody in the state of Maine has done something like this,” Schreiber said.

“We know technically now that we can do it,” he added.

South Portland Director of Planning and Development Tex Haeuser said the virtual forum was valuable, and it taught city officials that it may be more effective to allow the public to enter feedback online at their leisure as opposed to asking the public to meet at a specified date and time for a virtual forum.

“We learned some things. It was sort of fun to do. It was an experiment,” Haeuser said.

Data from the survey that was on the site will be compiled and analyzed by students at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Policy. Charles Colgan, a professor at the Muskie School and a South Portland resident who assisted with the comprehensive plan project, echoed Schreiber’s and Haeuser’s thoughts about the relatively new method to collect public feedback.

“It is a new process and the only way you can really do it is just to do it. You go out and you try a couple of times, see what’s happening. You see what works and what doesn’t work and you go from there. The next time you do it, you know a little more,” Colgan said.

The Comprehensive Plan Committee also held an in-person public forum on Tuesday, June 19, that attracted significantly more public input. About 75 South Portland residents attended the forum at the South Portland Community Center, which featured food provided by Hannaford and live music from Schreiber’s jazz band, Standard Issue.

Committee Chairman Maxine Beecher said she was “thrilled” with the number of South Portland residents who have contributed to the construction of the plan since the committee began its work in fall 2009. The previous comprehensive plan was last updated in 1992.

Beecher said the public has keyed in with a particular focus on the issue of how to maintain South Portland’s smalltown feel as the city grows in size. The committee originally discussed how to grow South Portland’s tax base and economy by making the city more “urban” and Beecher said there was a strong public backlash against that description.

“We learned you can call it a lot of things, but don’t really describe it in any urban sense. People choose to live here because of the neighborhoods. We’ve heard that over and over. Each one has its uniqueness and people choose to live in that neighborhood because of what it is and where it is,” Beecher said.

Haeuser said the “urban” description of South Portland made residents think city officials had a vision to make South Portland become more similar to the neighboring city of Portland. There was a decided reaction against that, and the committee changed direction after it heard from the public.

The comprehensive plan mostly consists of recommendations about how to plan the city’s future over the long-term, as opposed to binding policies and ordinances. Beecher said those recommendations vary in their objectives from how to protect open spaces, how to attack transportation issues or how to best use South Portland’s waterfront.

“With our limited resources, we need to be smart about how we plan to spend our money, not just this year or next year, but five years from now. We need to know where we’re going,” Haeuser said.

Schreiber described the challenges of creating the plan through an analogy to a professional career.

“To get out of the present does take time. It’s almost like putting together a retirement plan. I’m 25, in the work force – what do I want my nest egg to look like in 40 years?” he asked.

The next order of business for the committee is to start the process of formally implementing the comprehensive plan. Members of the committee will meet on Tuesday, July 17 to incorporate ideas from the last round of public input gathered in person and online. Then, the document will go to the planning board for approval and finally, to the city council before it is officially implemented.

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