— Mark Sewall remembers roaming his hometown of York
as a boy. He could wander the commercial docks in York Harbor
at will. The woods and fields around town were his playgrounds.
York of his boyhood is long gone, said the 42-year-old lobsterman.
Sewall says, the public has been locked out of much of the
town. Many of the commercial docks have been torn down and
replaced by homes and private docks. The woods and fields
have been carved up into house lots. People have stopped waving.
changes Sewall has noticed in his hometown are classic symptoms
of sprawl, which is the spreading of development across the
landscape. Its causes are complex and its solutions not perfect.
year sprawl gobbles up thousands of acres of land in York
County, the fastest-growing county in the state.
growth in new housing permits has been steady for the past
four years across the county. For example, in 2003, some 1,723
permits for new housing units were issued countywide, a 9.2
percent increase from the year before. If each new home were
built on a two-acre lot, more than 3,400 acres would have
1990 and 2000, the population increased by 13 percent to 186,742
in York County, compared to the state's largest county, Cumberland,
which grew 9 percent in that period to 265,612. The U.S. Census
estimates York County's population grew another 6 percent
from 2000 to 2003, to 198,026. Cumberland County's population
grew 2 percent during that time - or one-third as quickly
- to 270,923 people.
York County's agricultural heritage may be in peril. The county
lost 12,207 acres of farmland, or 18 percent, between 1997
and 2002, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
During that time the average size of a York County farm shrank
from 101 acres to 84 acres.
Caron of GrowSmart Maine, an organization that fights sprawl,
said York County has plenty of company. Not one Maine town
has managed to get a grip on sprawl.
is a big, complicated issue and it is tough for towns to grapple
with it," he said.
advocates say steps taken to control an explosion of residential
growth in York County in the 1980s, such as requiring large
building lots and implementing town-by-town growth caps, largely
policies actually pushed land values up and encouraged middle-class
families to move farther away from urban centers into rural
areas, in search of cheaper lots on which to build their dream
homes. In turn, housing in desirable seacoast villages and
established neighborhoods skyrockets in price. The towns become
denizens of the wealthy, higher-income professionals or retirees.
communities in York County have zoning ordinances that would
not allow the archetypical New England village or harbor town
to be built today.
result means countryside is carved into two- and three-acre
house lots, strung side by side along existing roads. The
spread of house lots and housing developments across the county
has led to a loss of community life, more air pollution, more
traffic, less habitat for wildlife and a host of other ills,
say those working to reverse the trend.
already living in the tiny towns drawing an influx of newcomers
were met with escalating property taxes as communities grappled
to accommodate more students, more cars on the roads and more
roads to plow.
town of York reflects the sprawl story in Maine.
Sewall was born, York's population was 4,663. Today, the town's
population has nearly tripled to 13,390, according to U.S.
Census estimates. Another 6,800 take up residence in town
during the summer and 6,000 people stay in hotels and other
transient accommodations. On a peak summer day, the number
of people in town can swell to 65,000, according to York Police
a growth rate in new housing of 2.16 percent a year between
1990 and 2000, York responded in several ways. It became home
to one of the most active and successful land trusts in the
county and adopted what some consider some of the most restrictive
zoning in the state.
has a long history of restrictive zoning, dating to the 1930s,
when it became the first community in the state and among
the first in the nation to adopt zoning standards.
seaside community, established in 1652, was a mecca for wealthy
summer residents by the late 19th century. The summer residents
clamored for fire stations, street lights, sidewalks and other
services they were accustomed to at their winter homes - but
were constantly outvoted by the locals. In 1901, York Harbor
and York Beach both became separate municipalities. These
spin-offs allowed summer residents to vote.
Harbor, summer home to the wealthiest families, moved to distance
itself from York Beach, which drew crowds of working people
and day trippers who could access the beach by trolley. York
Harbor residents passed zoning in 1936 to restrict billboards,
dance halls and businesses that they referred to as "the
cheap manifestation of the lower-class mentality," said
Cindy Young-Gomes, registrar at the Old York Historical Society.
the 1970s, York Harbor and York Beach could no longer afford
to exist as separate entities and rejoined York proper. But
feelings in York still run strongly about the restrictive
zoning, Young-Gomes said.
the past decade, residents have tightened town zoning further
Banning fast-food restaurants in 1997 and this year extending
the ban to include all chain restaurants.
Adopting a growth cap that limits new housing permits to 84
Banning commercial buildings of more than 2,500 square feet
in certain sections of the town's commercial zone and allowing
no retail space beyond 20,000 square feet anywhere in town,
with the sole exception of grocery stores.
Reducing commercial zones along Route 1.
there is a two- to three-year wait to obtain a permit to build
a new home in York and Route 1 is lined by forests and fields,
in stark contrast to the strip malls and businesses that line
Route 1 to the north and south.
although the town has contained commercial growth to targeted
areas, residential growth continues to spread. A map of the
new homes built in town during the past three years shows
a steady encroachment westward into the town's unfragmented
Opinions about whether the zoning and growth ordinances
have stopped sprawl are decidedly mixed.
does limiting the houses better plan the growth?" asked
York Town Planner Steven Burns, who still remembers being
branded as pro-development by proponents of the growth cap
four years ago when he failed to endorse the measure.
said he believes what people in York have tried to do with
zoning is to freeze the town in time.
say, 'Gee, I love it here. I don't want it to change,' "
the growth ordinance has slowed the pace of growth, said Burns,
it has not ensured that the growth is well planned. Burns
said if the town was serious about controlling growth, it
would adopt zoning ordinances that do that.
said an ordinance he helped to develop in Newmarket, N.H.,
is designed to contain sprawl by allowing mixed uses and growth
in its downtown area. New buildings, for example, must be
at least two stories tall.
Estes, who helped bring the growth control ordinance to York,
said he does not think sprawl is a problem in his town today.
A resident of York for 37 years, he said York is just right.
He would not like to see laws changed to concentrate new growth
in its existing village and commercial areas.
could pack our downtown areas and make them more like cities,
but that is not what we want," he said.
zoning policies may be failing to prevent sprawl, but the
town's land trust has made some strides in protecting land
the past decade, York Land Trust Inc., founded in 1987, has
accelerated its pace of land preservation. By 1992, the trust
had 40 members, no staff and had protected 75 acres through
land acquisition or purchases of conservation easements.
has swelled to 550 today and the trust is staffed by three
full-time and three part-time employees. In the past 12 years,
the trust has protected close to 1,300 acres of land in town.
year the group became what is believed to be the first land
trust in the state to buy a conservation easement to protect
a working waterfront - this one in York Harbor. The trust
spent $410,000 to buy an easement on a dock purchased by Sewall
and Jeff Donnell. The easement guarantees the dock will remain
a commercial dock even if it is sold.
People have begun to rally around the prevention
of sprawl across York County.
Schumacher, director of the Southern Maine Regional Planning
Commission, said anti-sprawl forums hosted by his agency always
draw dozens of interested town officials and residents hungry
for new ideas on how to control growth in their communities.
in sprawl sparked the establishment of GrowSmart Maine two
years ago. The statewide group, based in Yarmouth, has 300
in York County have taken a number of steps in the past 15
years to control growth, from impact fees to growth caps,
most with limited success. Today most communities in York
County have caps on the number of new housing permits they
issue each year. Communities have largely adopted zoning ordinances
that require large building lots.
have imposed construction fees to pay for the impact of new
homes on sewage and water systems and disappearing open space.
A few have experimented with so-called cluster zoning, which
allows a developer to concentrate homes on small lots in exchange
for preserving open space elsewhere in the development.
of the problem with measures that would contain growth is
they often clash with landowners' rights.
York, a Limington builder, estimates he spent more than $100,000
in the past year challenging his town's growth cap. He said
the cap, which limits building permits to two per family each
year, is unfair to large families that want to subdivide their
land. He said there are 21 builders in his family and the
growth ordinance, at the least, discriminates against large
families. He also says growth caps make Limington unaffordable
for the people who grew up there because caps put a premium
on developable land.
balance has to be struck that allows landowners to develop
their land without using up the open space that makes the
landscape so attractive, say anti-sprawl advocates.
is not easy to find that balance.
there was some sort of silver bullet out there, everyone would
be doing it," said Schumacher of the regional planning
in York County depend on volunteer residents to man planning
boards and develop comprehensive plans; then the volunteers
have to win local support for the plan.
nitty-gritty work of preparing zoning ordinances and mustering
the political support to get them passed is a lot of work,"
planning board volunteers are faced with complex projects
designed by engineers.
is a difficult job for lay people," he said.
the same time, state policies can contribute to sprawl.
decades state school construction policies favored new school
construction in suburban communities with growing student
populations and small tax bases, rather than new schools in
urban areas with large commercial tax bases but relatively
moderate- and low-income taxpayers.
policies were adopted without any regard to whether funding
suburban schools would create a greater stimulus to more outward
migration from the suburbs, said Evan Richert, chairman of
Although state policies have changed in the past
five years or so, Richert said there is still some lingering
bias against school construction projects in urban areas.
communities are beginning to experiment with new approaches.
example, North Berwick just approved a measure that will assess
a fee on new development to be used by the town to buy and
preserve land, joining York and Saco, which have already adopted
the open space impact fees.
is considering a measure that would make it the first community
in the county to adopt a growth cap that would encourage growth
in its designated village area and discourage growth in rural
shelved its four-year-old cap on new housing permits this
year in favor of a new zoning ordinance designed to target
growth in high-density areas equipped with town water and
sewer systems and discourage growth in rural areas.
said the zoning should slow the growth of subdivisions in
the rural areas but does not address the lot-by-lot development
that contributes to sprawl.
age-old question is what strategies are out there to get a
hold of the lot-by-lot-stuff. Everyone still struggles with
that," Schumacher said.
anti-sprawl advocates say sprawl will not be solved until
it is addressed regionally, not town by town.
is regional in scope. It is the leapfrogging of development
across town boundaries to points farther and farther away
from where people work and shop," Richert said.
said towns in Maine have not cooperated with each other to
control growth, unlike communities in other parts of the country
that have banded together to fight sprawl on a regional basis.
in a sense, there is no town that on its own can succeed,"