DANVERS — If you want to help people deal with the effects of climate change, it's best not to mention climate change.

That was the message at a workshop in Danvers this week for local planners and engineers, held by the North Shore Task Force of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council. Those in attendance included city officials from Salem and Beverly, who heard two guest speakers from Maine, where coastal towns were damaged by hurricane-force winds and major flooding on Patriots Day in 2007.

On the North Shore, the recurrence of similar destructive events is moving town planners to ask questions and look for solutions.

"The gist of it is, people are building the seawall several times and wondering, 'Should we keep repeating this same action? Can we look at this long term?'" said Sam Cleaves, a senior regional planner with the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, a quasi-state agency that advises local communities on a range of planning issues.

"We're seeing storms of greater intensity and frequency, and precipitation at levels we haven't seen before," Cleaves said. "At the same time, you've got municipalities with less resources at their disposal. It leaves people scratching their heads."

Whatever approach towns take to deal with flooding from storms, the speakers suggested that solutions are best discussed without reference to why sea levels are rising.

"We've avoided the politics of climate change," said Jonathan Lockman, planning director of the Southern Maine Regional Planning Commission. "People are observing with their own eyes the sea level rise, but there certainly is very lively debate over why it's happening, and we just avoid it."

What people are seeing has been measured every year since 1910 by the tide gauge in Portland, which shows an increase in water levels of a little over 7 inches in the past century.

The Patriots Day flood in Maine initiated five years of sea-level planning that Lockman shared with local officials.

He said he uses conservative estimates, which project that the sea level will continue to rise at the same rate over the next century, even though other estimates show the rate at which water levels are rising is increasing.

Lockman simply asks people to look at the problems they have been dealing with, and can expect to deal with in the future, without trying to explain why those problems are happening.

"It doesn't matter what your values are," said Sam Merrill, director of the New England Environmental Finance Center in Portland, who introduced a tool called COAST, which helps communities evaluate the impact of flooding and other damaging events.

"Nobody wants their stuff to wash out to sea — and our stuff is washing out to sea."

Planners from communities on Massachusetts' South Shore also related experiences helping local towns prepare for storms.

Among locals who attended the meeting were Roland Adams, geographic information system manager in Beverly's engineering department, who is responsible for evaluating flood plain maps in the city.

Adams was impressed by Merrill's account of how Portland dodged a bullet during one recent storm.

"The phenomenon that they were talking about in Portland is the same that we could see here in the Bass River and the North Beverly Brook, where you have a high tide with a storm surge, and the tide is going to want to come inland at the same time that the (rain) water wants to go out," Adams said. "Then they meet — two big bodies of water meet — and there's no place for them to go."

Adams said that when a project conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey becomes available in February, it will provide detailed, laser-generated maps of land contours that will enable him to evaluate Beverly's vulnerability in more detail.

Salem was represented at the meeting by Paul Marquis, energy and sustainability manager, along with two other members of the Department of Planning and Community Development, Tom Devine and Danielle McKnight.

"There are many areas of the city that are vulnerable," Marquis said. "Assessing them is a whole other question, but it's on a lot of people's radar. And it's noteworthy that there were three representatives from Salem in the room today."

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