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Trying to get a grip
July 18, 2004, Maine Today - Portland Press Herald
By Beth Quimby

YORK — 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. Everyone waved.

The York of his boyhood is long gone, said the 42-year-old lobsterman.

Today, 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.

The 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.

Every year sprawl gobbles up thousands of acres of land in York County, the fastest-growing county in the state.

The 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 been developed.

Between 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.

And 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.

Alan 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.

"It is a big, complicated issue and it is tough for towns to grapple with it," he said.

Anti-sprawl 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 backfired.

These 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.

Most communities in York County have zoning ordinances that would not allow the archetypical New England village or harbor town to be built today.

The 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.

Those 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.

The town of York reflects the sprawl story in Maine.

When 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 Department estimates.

With 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.

York 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.

The 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.

York 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.

By 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.

In the past decade, residents have tightened town zoning further by:

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 a year.

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.

Today 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.

But 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 parcels.

Mixed Opinions
Opinions about whether the zoning and growth ordinances have stopped sprawl are decidedly mixed.

"How 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.

He said he believes what people in York have tried to do with zoning is to freeze the town in time.

"People say, 'Gee, I love it here. I don't want it to change,' " he said.

While 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.

He 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.

Clifford 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.

"We could pack our downtown areas and make them more like cities, but that is not what we want," he said.

York's zoning policies may be failing to prevent sprawl, but the town's land trust has made some strides in protecting land from development.

In 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.

Membership 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.

This 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.

Interest Picks Up
People have begun to rally around the prevention of sprawl across York County.

Paul 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.

Interest in sprawl sparked the establishment of GrowSmart Maine two years ago. The statewide group, based in Yarmouth, has 300 members.

Communities 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.

Some 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.

Part of the problem with measures that would contain growth is they often clash with landowners' rights.

Michael 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.

Some 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.

It is not easy to find that balance.

"If there was some sort of silver bullet out there, everyone would be doing it," said Schumacher of the regional planning commission.

Towns 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.

"The nitty-gritty work of preparing zoning ordinances and mustering the political support to get them passed is a lot of work," he said.

Local planning board volunteers are faced with complex projects designed by engineers.

"It is a difficult job for lay people," he said.

At the same time, state policies can contribute to sprawl.

For 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.

The 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 GrowSmart Maine.

Taking New Approaches
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.

Some communities are beginning to experiment with new approaches.

For 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.

Acton 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 areas.

Berwick 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.

Schumacher 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.

"The 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.

Some anti-sprawl advocates say sprawl will not be solved until it is addressed regionally, not town by town.

"Sprawl 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.

Richert 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.

"But in a sense, there is no town that on its own can succeed," Richert said.

Staff photo by Gregory Rec

HOUSING BOOM: Permits for new units rose 9.2 percent last year in York County from 2002.

Staff photo by Gregory Rec
FARMLAND LOST: More than 12,000 acres, or 18 percent, was lost between 1997 and 2002.

Staff photo by Gregory Rec
MORE TRAFFIC: Commute times are longer with the rise in housing units and developments.

Staff photo by Gregory Rec
This dock in York Harbor, once open to the pubic, has been bought and is now strictly for the use of a private residence.

Article © Copyright 2004, Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.


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