In the 1980s I helped create comprehensive plans for eight rural Maine towns, including West Gardiner, Litchfield, Searsmont and Montville. Some of those towns undertook the process reluctantly, after the state required every town to prepare a plan. But all of the plans were comprehensive, outlining lots of goals and policies for each town.

The folks in the towns where I worked felt strongly about maintaining their rural character. We offered residents a chance to weigh in on the issues in a survey. One survey comment that stayed with me was, “I don’t live in the country so we can turn it into an urban area.”

In each plan, we defined what rural meant. Here’s how we described rural character.

The term “rural” conjures up images of a visual landscape of farms, stone walls, winding tree-lined roads running up and down over our hillsides, and a diversity of architecture and people. Important rural characteristics include a lot of open space and forest, wildlife, clean water, large homesteads and a diverse development pattern with homes spread throughout the land base. The lack of a cluttered and clustered development is a special rural characteristic that is valued by the community.

To some, the term “rural” represents an attitude: independence, neighborliness in an environment where you know and can trust all your neighbors, freedom, and the opportunity to be left alone. When problems occur, neighbors solve them by talking with each other.

There is more self-sufficiency (although less than in the past) and people have the ability to take care of their own. Many believe that an important rural characteristic is lack of regulations and allowance for creativity and diversity that gives even the poorest people an opportunity to house themselves.

Rural can also be defined by what it is not. Rural to many means no noise, no public services, no regulations, no sidewalks, no street lights, no crime and only very limited police protection.

Rural is a place where people live from their land, not just on their land. Land is a sustaining factor of life in rural Maine. Using the land is essential to rural life, and rural people live closer to their land and natural resources.

Living the rural life means you can sell a few cords of wood, when you need to, and enjoy the opportunity to manage and protect your land. Rural people have always had a reverence for the land and a strong belief that they should leave their land better than they found it.

Rural is the place where outdoor recreation prevails over organized indoor sports, where maple syrup is boiled in the springtime from maple ridges where snowmobiles and cross country skiers bound in wintertime. It’s a place that lures summer vacationers who leave before the spectacular beauty of fall returns Maine to its full-time residents.

The definition of rural is very much related to one’s surroundings. A diversity of land, homes and people make up the interesting character which we regard today in rural Maine towns.

In West Gardiner, residents resisted state demands, writing, “West Gardiner has resisted the development of a restrictive regulatory climate and residents are very pleased to live in a community free from many of the more restrictive ordinances and regulations found in neighboring communities.”

One of their goals was to “protect private property rights and discourage unreasonable encroachment on those rights,” and another was to “avoid new regulations which encroach on private property rights.”

West Gardiner residents also urged the Legislature “to repeal the state law which forces municipalities to downgrade their land use protection regulations for mobile home parks,” and directed their selectmen “to ignore the state law regarding mobile home parks.” They also urged the Legislature “to immediately enact meaningful property tax relief.” Of course, that never happened.

I particularly liked this West Gardiner policy: “Urge the legislature to fully fund or eliminate all state mandates enacted in the last ten years and in the future to always provide full funding for any new mandates directed to local municipalities.” Don’t we all wish this had happened! In the plan, they listed many of those unfunded mandates, emphasizing that “restoring local control is an important element of this entire comprehensive plan.”

At that time, these comprehensive plans had to be approved by the state and most of the plans I prepared were not, primarily because they expressed the attitudes above, attitudes that are still very relevant and important to those of us who live in rural Maine.

George Smith is a writer and TV talk show host. He can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon 04352, or [email protected] Read more of Smith’s writings at

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