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Sunday, December 29, 2002

Hunger for ocean views puts pressure on a fishing village

Copyright 2002 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.

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Staff photo by  Jill Brady
Staff photo by Jill Brady

Malcolm "Laddie" Whidden's home overlooks his lobster wharf and Harpswell Sound. "I hope we can hold onto it," he says. He helped draft a tax reform proposal known as the Chebeague plan that would roll back tax assessments on coastal property if owners pledge not to sell.

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HARPSWELL — Don Rogers is behind his house coiling rope on his family wharf, a hefty wooden pier piled high with wire lobster traps and surrounded by lobster boats floating on the serene surface of Mackerel Cove. It's the kind of scene that has made the Maine coast recognizable around the country. And it's such a desirable view that Rogers is afraid the homestead his father built in 1908, and the family business that operates here, won't last another generation.

Rogers straightens up and looks around the cove at large homes that stand out among the weathered houses of fishing families he has known all his life. There's one house that sold for about $800,000 and another - known around the cove as the Howard Johnson's house - that someone from out of state bought for $1 million. And at the end of Abner Point, just beyond his house and on the other side of a "private road" sign, sits a cluster of large new homes owned by people he doesn't even know.

To Rogers and the other fishermen here, those are pieces of the Maine coast that will never again support fishing families. "Everything that slips away is gone," Rogers said. "It won't come back."

The celebrated coast of Maine is being gradually transformed by an insatiable demand for house lots overlooking the ocean. Excessive sales prices and multiplying tax assessments are squeezing fishing families off the coast and converting Maine's working waterfronts into exclusive havens for wealthy homeowners.

Fishermen and local and state officials say that unless something is done to temper market pressures for locals to sell out and move inland, Harpswell and other fishing communities will lose their character and their primary industry.

At 67 years old, Rogers should be tempted to sell his home and retire on the equity. But, in spite of the rising tax bill, he's holding on.

"I got no intention of selling it," he said. "I got four boys and a girl. They go fishing from this wharf, along with me."

The hot real estate market is changing communities all the way up the coast to Jonesport and Eastport, lifting property values and taxes, shifting ownership of the waterfront and creating conflicts over growth and access to the ocean.

"It's just like a big roller that's coming this way from the south," said James Knight, a member of the Harpswell Board of Selectmen.

What's happening along Maine's coast is actually part of a larger trend that is changing the demographics of waterfront communities on both U.S. coasts. In the Cape Cod town of Chatham, for example, officials are hoping to preserve the last two commercial fishing piers, one of which has gone up for sale.

"It's not unique to this region. It's everywhere there's water," said Theodore Keon, Chatham's coastal resources director.

"I think demographics are what's driving it," said Rob Williams, a real estate broker in Harpswell. "As the baby boomers reach retirement age, they want a vacation or retirement home that's on the water. "

The trend is creating concern in communities all along the Maine coast, and Harpswell is feeling the pressure about as much as any.

A collection of peninsulas and islands at the eastern edge of Casco Bay and Cumberland County, Harpswell sits at the threshold between the suburban and tourism-dominated shoreline to the south and the traditional fishing communities that stretch all the way to the Canadian border.

"This is really the next place where change is taking place," said David Etnier, a former state legislator from Harpswell who has pushed for coastal tax reform.

Here, tiny mobile homes share breathtaking ocean views with sprawling designer houses, and pickup trucks piled high with lobster traps share the winding roads with luxury SUVs.

Harpswell still has a large percentage of families who work on the sea for a living. Of the 5,253 residents, 421 are licensed commercial fishermen who primarily trap lobsters, catch fish and dig clams. That's about one fisherman for every five households. Portland, with more than 12 times the population, has 271 licensed harvesters.

But Harpswell also is a booming retirement and summer community for wealthy out-of-state buyers. The newcomers, including many with a past connection to Bowdoin College or Brunswick Naval Air Station, are coming here for a piece of oceanfront and an investment that is putting the stock market to shame.

Sales prices have gone through the roof in the last several years, and they're still climbing fast despite a general slowdown in the economy, said Debbie Turner, the assessor's assistant in Harpswell. "The newspapers are saying things are slowing down, but we're wondering where its slowing down," she said. "Not on the coast. Not anyplace that has water."

The median home price in Harpswell is $222,050, according to the Maine State Housing Authority. With a median income of $50,000, that means 71 percent of Harpswell's householders could no longer afford to buy a typical home in their own community, according to MSHA.

"For us, we're OK now," said Craig Rogers, one of Don Rogers' four lobsterman sons. "But our kids are in trouble. With my kids, there's no way any of them will be able to buy in Harpswell."

Sales of $1 million and more are becoming routine, and values are growing so fast that the state recently required Harpswell to do its second townwide property revaluation in four years.

Don Rogers' half-acre homestead on Mackerel Cove was reassessed at $260,000, increasing his tax bill to about $2,500 a year. Rogers didn't get hit as hard as many in the latest revaluation - he said his taxes increased a few hundred dollars - but he knows it may only be a few years before rising values force another revaluation and the potential for assessments to jump again.

The arrival of wealthy newcomers actually means taxes are lower than they would otherwise be for many town residents, said Williams, the local real estate agent. The owners of new high-end properties pay much more in taxes than the typical family here, and often demand very little in town services because they have no kids in school and may not even live in town year-round.

"It has relieved a lot of tax burden," Williams said. Although the concern for fishing families on the waterfront is a legitimate one, he said, much of the increasing tax burden here is due to the town's increasing share of the education budget for SAD 75.

Some owners of landlocked properties in town did see declines in their tax bills, said Knight, the selectman. But residents in the hottest waterfront areas, such as around Mackerel Cove, Basin Cove and other points of land, had assessments that doubled or tripled. As a result, many longtime residents saw property tax bills increase hundreds and even thousands of dollars, he said. And there is no end in sight to the increases, he said.

The exploding value of real estate in Harpswell is also the reason the town's education spending is rising dramatically, Knight said.

Harpswell and three other communities in SAD 75 share the costs depending on the real estate values in each community. Because Harpswell is the only coastal community of the four and its property values are growing at a far faster rate, the town's share of the school budget is rising dramatically, Knight said.

The end result is rising expenses and even greater pressure for working families to sell waterfront properties.

"You take a guy from Philadelphia or Connecticut, paying $10,000 a year in taxes, and it's a bargain to him" to move to Harpswell, said Arthur Dodge, chairman of Harpswell's marine resources committee. "But for somebody here in town paying $2,000, it's a real shock when it goes up to $5,000. If you want to keep the land in the family, there's an awful lot of disincentives."

The trend has implications for coastal communities and the state's $860 million fishing industry, as well as the coastal residents themselves.

A recent study of 25 coastal communities between Kittery and Eastport found that as fishing families are giving up ownership of the waterfront, commercial access to the ocean is concentrating into a declining number of private piers and increasingly crowded public wharves. The state Planning Office has estimated that of Maine's roughly 7,000 miles of coastline, working waterfronts represent just 25 miles in all.

A growing number of Harpswell's lobstermen now commute from homes in Brunswick, Bath, Pownal or Richmond, a trend that feeds into suburban sprawl and the economic and environmental costs that accompany it. As in other towns, the fishermen share piers that are owned by lobster dealers or families to get to their boats and get their catches to market.

Local clam diggers are finding that land they have used for generations to get to and from shellfish beds is being converted into house lots, sometimes with "no trespassing" signs.

"I think a lot of people feel helpless," said Malcolm "Laddie" Whidden, a former selectman whose home overlooks his lobster wharf and Harpswell Sound. His father bought the land in 1936.

"I hope we can hold onto it. This is a base for about 10 families right now," he said. "We're just holding on, the fishing industry in this town. A lobster fisherman has to have a boat. He has to have access to the shore."

Whidden helped draft a tax reform proposal that will be one of several alternatives before the Maine Legislature in the coming year. His Maine Land Bank idea, which is also known as the Chebeague plan because of support for it among islanders there, would roll back tax assessments on coastal property if owners pledge not to sell. The tax break would be paid for by penalties on those property owners who enroll in the program and then decide to sell.

Property tax reform won't relieve all of the pressure that is transforming the coast. But, Whidden says, it will allow those who want to keep their family homestead to stay on the Maine coast.

"I hope my children and grandchildren can keep it." But without tax reform, he said, "I don't think they'll have a chance."

The coast of Maine would be changing even more rapidly if not for the strong sense of tradition among many fishing families, coupled with several years of unusually strong lobster catches.

"This place, as far as I'm concerned, will never be for sale as long as I've got kids in the business," Gary Hawke said as he unloaded lobsters at his wharf in Harpswell's Cundy's Harbor.

But the pressures are real, and closing in. Several years ago, someone wanted to turn a nearby commercial pier into a recreational marina, Hawkes said. Although that plan fell through, residential properties around the wharves continue to change hands.

Hawkes gestures up the waterfront to a nearby home. "Someone wrote a check for $305,000 - wrote a check," he said. "We can't compete with that."

Hawkes is building his own new house next to his wharf, and it's as much a statement of defiance as a home. "I am water dependent," he said. "I've got to have access to the water."

Beth Murphy and Susan Butler, staff researchers, contributed to this story.

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

jrichardson@pressherald.com


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