New tool for vernal pools offers potential win-win scenario
Scientists and municipal officials in Topsham and Orono say the Vernal Pool Special Management Plan concept – yet to be used – is worth a look.
By Betty Adams
The presence of vernal pools in a community’s designated growth area can cause head-aches for both ecologists and developers.
Ecologists worry about the long-term survival prospects for the fragile wildlife that breed in vernal pools. Developers stress about the regulatory hoops, both state and federal, that must be surmounted in order to use the land for its municipally designated purpose.
Now a new mitigation tool is available that allows developers to navigate that pool a little better, while at the same time in-creasing the number of protect-ed vernal pools in a designated rural area where forested wood-lands provide a better long-term habitat for vernal pool denizens.
Seven years of hard work by municipal officials, scientists and developers produced the Maine Vernal Pool Special Area Management Plan, a roadmap for municipalities to use when development impacts vernal pools.
“The whole idea behind this is a landscape-scale approach to rural conservation. and that makes a big difference,” says Aram Calhoun, professor of wetland ecology at the University of Maine, who helped develop the new tool.
The Vernal Pool Special Area Management Plan provides an alternative mitigation procedure that a town can adopt that essentially bypasses state and federal and state permitting processes and allows development to take place without waiting for spring to assess the vernal pool. The developer pays a fee to a local conservation pro-gram – often a land trust – which then uses the money to buy a permanent conservation easement from a rural landowner for a vernal pool landscape. The developer also can donate land that’s acceptable to the conservation group rather than pay a fee.
While the legislation authorizing use of the tool was finalized in 2017, it has yet to be used locally, although both Topsham and Orono have uses for it on the books.
How it works
In order to adopt the Special Area Management Plan, a municipality must go through a series of steps, including authorizing the plan as part of its ordinances and applying to the Board of Environmental Protection. Procedures are detailed at the “Of Pools and People” website (www.vernal-pools.me), which offers just about everything you want to learn about vernal pools, including identification, regulation, research and even activities for children.
Calhoun said use of the tool can avoid the problem of having a vernal pool surrounded by development, “which is not sustainable for pool-breeding amphibians in particular or for long-term population viability.”
The Maine Department of Environmental Protection describes vernal pools as “shallow depressions that usually contain water for only part of the year. They are often associated with forested wetlands.”
Calhoun noted that “A high priority vernal pool has good, intact forested landscape around it. Our high priority pools are ones that serve as good breeding sites for at least one species of the vernal pool breeders: wood frog, spotted salamander, blue-spotted salamander or fairy shrimp.”
Wood frogs can grow to about 2½ inches long and live three to five years. They over-winter while partially frozen, as a “frogsicle,” Calhoun says. Spotted salamanders have bright yellow spots and grow to be six to eight inches long.
Vernal pool in Hancock County (Submitted photo) Dr. Aram Calhoun
They can live 15-20 years. Blue-spotted salamanders have light blue spots and are slightly smaller. In a wildlife video on the “Of Pools and People” website, Calhoun describes fairy shrimp as “the fresh-water version of brine shrimp.” The translucent upside-down swimmers grow to be an inch long and have a lifespan of about six weeks.
Evan Richert, director of the State Planning Office for eight years and later consulting planner for the Town of Orono, helped formulate the Vernal Pool Special Area Management Plan.
“This tool, where it is appropriate and applicable and needed, helps to reconcile the conflict between two state laws: the Natural Resources Protection Act and the Comprehensive Land Use Planning Act,” he said.
Significant or high priority vernal pool habitats are protected under the state’s Natural Resources Protection Act. The Comprehensive Land Use and Planning Act has goals of limiting developmental sprawl and focusing development on designated growth areas.
Sights to behold
Richert, who is now retired, likened vernal pools to a seventh wonder.
“When they are active in the spring, they are a beautiful, beautiful sight. You see these masses of eggs in layers (from different species) and some-times ducks flying in for a quick protein snack. It’s at the base of the forest ecological system,” Richert said. “What happens when you want to develop right in the middle of a growth area, but there’s a vernal pool there? That’s the conflict that this tool reconciles.”
Richert recalled that in the mid 2000s, a clustered single-family housing development was proposed in Orono, within walking distance to the University of Maine and the downtown.
“The state’s growth management plan encourages that kind of development in that location,” he said. How-ever, the plan called for a roadway to cross wetlands that held a vernal pool, and it ran into problems with various regulatory agencies. “That combined with the Great Recession killed the project. It was an eye-opener for a lot of people.”
He said that inspired the town to learn more about vernal pools and where they were located.
Richert noted that one of the key elements of the Vernal Pool Special Management Plan is that the state’s delegation of authority for permit-ting and mitigation to municipalities. Calhoun also pointed out that a municipality has no liability with regard to the use of the new tool. If after three years no landowner is willing to do the conservation easement, the money is sent to the state’s In Lieu Fee Compensation Program.
Jim Howard, president and CEO of Priority Real Estate Group, a Topsham firm specializing in commercial real estate development, joined the group working on the plan at the request of Topsham officials and spent five and a half years at it.
Initially, Howard was unsure about what to expect. “Usually when a developer sits with the DEP, the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers, we tend to have conflicts.”
However, he found that the group “was incredibly productive and incredibly focused on how to solve a real development problem.” Their focus, he said, was: “Let’s protect land where we really want to protect it for good and not protect something that’s basically a big puddle in the industrial park.”
Without this plan, the presence of a vernal pool on a lot in a growth zone meant either more expense or simply rendered the lot unusable.
“Once a vernal pool was identified, it kind of becomes like nuclear waste; you don’t go near it,” Howard said. Now he has the opposite view. “I’m actually trying to find a piece of property with a darn vernal pool on it to develop it so we can show how it works.”
Howard is also advocating for other municipalities to adopt the Vernal Pool Special Area Management Plan.
“If we could get the word out to town planners, economic development directors that this program’s fair, then with all the land in all the growth zones, we would have a lot of people submitting to the program to use it,” he said.
Rod Melanson, Topsham’s planning director, praised Howard’s work helping to craft the new plan. “His involvement with special area management has been invaluable in dealing with landowners and advising them that this is a good tool to use.”
Melanson noted that the town has been involved in assessing vernal pools for a number of years, with much of the initial surveying performed by citizen scientists trained by University of Maine as part of The Vernal Pool Map-ping and Assessment Program, which began in 2007.
“I still have the data for all the potential pools throughout the town,” Melanson said. “It looks like little dots on the map.”
Melanson said the information benefited landowners thinking of developing their property and it identified vernal pools in commercially zoned areas.
The Town of Topsham, which ad-opted the Vernal Pool Special Area Management Plan several years ago, is working with a landowner on a housing development project that impacts vernal pools and could potentially use the new tool.
Melanson has high hopes for the plan’s impact. “A win-win situation would be the town ends up with a positive downtown development while at the same time literally protecting a re-source that will have long-term value as a resource in a rural area. It allows the town to grow where it wants to grow and will protect the rural character that the town said it wants to protect.”
Melanson added, “For the planning community, it’s a great way to do conservation and development in one package to have local control over a successful conservation project and a successful development.”
Looking for opportunities
In Orono, the other Maine municipality which helped formulate and later adopted the Vernal Pool Special Area Management Plan as part of its ordinances, also has yet to see a project that would use it. “In our identified growth area where development would happen that might impact one of the pools, there aren’t too many locations left,” said Kyle Drexler, town planner there for the past three years.
In the meantime, the town has been working with Calhoun and her colleagues to identify vernal pool locations in rural areas to be ready should someone propose a development un-der the Special Area Management Plan tool.
“We were starting to organize out-reach events for people in rural areas to get together to see what an easement would look like,” Drexler said. “The pandemic shut down our ability to meet with the property owners and that made it harder to find potential properties out there we might not know about.”
He’s hoping warmer weather and increased vaccination numbers will al-low resumption of the outreach effort.
“From the planning perspective, I think it’s a really valuable tool for here,” Drexler said. “It supports a lot of what the town’s goals are because you are able to focus development where we want development anyway to take advantage of infrastructure and achieve goals in rural areas.”
Calhoun is enthusiastic as well.
“For each pool filled in the growth area, we get two pools and adjacent habitat for the amphibians in an area of the town that is already deemed low-er development, so there’s a chance for pool-breeding amphibians to have long-term viability. By implementing a permanent conservation easement, we have linked vernal pools to forests, and that is beneficial to all the wildlife that uses the vernal pools, not for breeding, but for feeding and resting. We have a whole suite of mammals, birds, reptiles and other amphibians that use these vernal pools. So obviously if our goal is to conserve linked landscapes, then we’re conserving corridors and green spaces for all the wildlife.
“Moose, deer and bear all use these vernal pools in the spring, because they are the first things to start melting, the first wetland habitat available, full of good things to eat early in the spring before other food resources come online. So you’ll often find great blue herons or ducks migrating to their nesting areas stopping in these pools. We have turkeys foraging in vernal pools. I am convinced that mink, raccoon and other small mammals are tuned into the rhythms of the vernal pool amphibian migrations, so they actually stake out these areas and wait for all that food to flow into the pool to get a first, after-winter, really good slug of protein.”
Calhoun and her colleagues are looking at how best to implement the tool.
“The devil’s in the details: Getting a landowner that wants to put their land in conservation, and getting a development project off the ground that wants to use this tool,” Calhoun said. “My colleagues and I are still doing research on the social science aspect of implementing such a tool and the one thing that we have found surprising is that we finally have the amphibians figured out, but the people, not so much. A lot of people are very hesitant with the permanence of a conservation easement.” Calhoun said she and Dr. Jessi-ca Spelke Jansujwicz, an applied social scientist at the University of Maine, are willing to make formal presentations to municipalities about how the tool would work. “The tool’s been accepted by the Army Corps of Engineers, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Environmental Pro-test, and they’re all just waiting for successful projects and towns to adopt it.”
Calhoun also pointed to the regional opportunity. “If Maine can advertise this and get our towns used to it, I expect it will spread through New England, which would be wonderful if we live up to the ‘we lead’ (Dirigo) motto that the state has.”
Richert said, “I think it is a tool most useful in the suburban municipalities that are growing rapidly and trying to find a way to accommodate that growth while trying to preserve a very large rural area around those.”
In particular he pointed to the Portland region, the Augusta/Waterville area, Bangor and the coastal areas which are experiencing high commercial and residential growth.
Betty Adams is a freelance writer from Augusta and regular contributor to Maine Town & City, email@example.com.