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Growth bears down on York River
August 22, 2004, Portland Press Herald
By Jen Fish

YORK — As a boy, John Zacharias hunted on the land near the York River that he would grow up to own and farm. "When I grew up here, there were probably three to four thousand people - everyone knew everybody," he said. "On a good day, you'd count maybe five cars out on Route 91."

Now a steady stream of traffic passes Zacharias' fruit and vegetable stand, where locals line up to buy fresh produce.

Although the traffic is good for the vegetable business, it's also emblematic of the changes that have gripped York in the past few decades.

Those changes not only threaten the small-town atmosphere York still strives to maintain, but its natural resources as well. With most of the coastline built up, some townspeople fear the York River could become the next frontier for shoreline devel- opment.

"Money is pressure and there's a huge amount of money to be made there," said Torbert Macdonald, a member of the Board of Selectmen.

Those pressures worry environmentalists, who point to the York watershed, which covers more than 21,000 acres, as one of the most diverse wildlife habitats of its size in the state.

But as housing prices continue to skyrocket in York County, the temptation to cash out can be strong for landowners like Zacharias. His farm of about 220 acres is considered a key piece in conservation along the river.

Zacharias says he has no interest in selling his land now, because farming is what he loves. But as his property taxes have continued to climb, it's always in the back of his mind.

River advocates say the town is approaching an important crossroads in determining the river's future.

"Now the uses are changing," said Tin Smith, stewardship coordinator at the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve. "When lands come up for sale - we really only have one chance."

Smith and other preservation advocates hope the river can serve as a model for conservation and scientific study for watersheds like it around the state.

The town recently received a $60,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to develop a wetland management plan for intertidal marshes in the York River.


A tidal estuary, the York River is a diverse ecosystem that is home to a variety of fish and bird life, according to Michele Dionne, research director at the Wells Reserve.

"Many of the tidal systems on the coast have one predominant habitat," she said. "But this system has it all - rock and ledge, mud and sand, eel grass and an intact large salt marsh."

This habitat, Dionne said, is very vulnerable to human activity. Boat traffic can cause erosion of the riverbanks, and other human influences such as septic systems and fertilized lawns can contribute to pollution of the water.

"A system like this evolved over time with a well-developed, wooded shoreline," she said. "When you start cutting little holes, a patch of forest here, a patch of forest there, you lose the integrity of the shoreline and it no longer functions properly."

Maintaining vegetation along the river is one of the best ways to protect water quality, Smith said.

"The water that flows from a forest is a lot more healthy than the water flowing from a parking lot or a lawn," he said.

Unfortunately, Smith said, the "first thing we see when people buy land is they clear all of the vegetation on the river, and that's the worst thing you can do."

The point, he said, is not to shut off development, something that would be impossible. Growth, he said, can occur in a way that still protects the waters.

Education for landowners is one solution, says Carol Donnelly of the York River Association. It takes time, she said, to understand how changing the landscape can affect an entire ecosystem.

Zoning laws can also help protect the shoreline. Along most of the York River, builders are required to maintain a 75-foot vegetated buffer, and a 100-foot setback for structures. Some argue the setbacks and buffers need to be more strict.

"Anything less than 100 feet is a meaningless buffer," Macdonald, the York selectman, said. "The shoreland zone has been in existence for about 30 years and the standards haven't changed."

Enforcement of zoning has been a problem in the past. Recently, York selectmen approved hiring a shoreland code enforcement officer, a move some hope will not only maintain zoning, but also regulate the use of septic systems.

Most of the land around the river is not hooked into the town's sewer systems. As septic systems become more sophisticated, it is expected that land around the river previously thought unbuildable will become developed.

Bob Reed, a builder who lives in town and often fishes in the York River, said more regulation is not necessarily a bad idea, but planners need to be careful not to become overly restrictive.

"The more restrictions on it, the more valuable the property becomes," he said.


The other major strategy for conserving the river and its tributaries in the watershed are conservation easements.

The Mount Agamenticus to the Sea Conservation Initiative has been a major part of the push to purchase land and development rights.

To date, about 9,500 acres in the Mount Agamenticus region, which includes the York River watershed, have been protected. The initiative is run by a coalition of environmental groups that includes the York Land Trust.

Landowners who sell their development rights or put their lands under a conservation easement can cut their taxes by more than half, depending on what kind of easement is agreed on, said Doreen MacGillis, executive director of the York Land Trust.

"It's not an easy decision for (landowners) to sell their land and just go someplace else," she said. "Land trusts offer something that is different and nonregulatory."

Zacharias said he hopes he can work with the York Land Trust so his heirs can continue to work the land if they wish. Having a conservation easement that would allow him to continue farming while protecting the land against development forever is what he wants, but the deal has to be right.

"I'm looking long term here," he said. "I've had plenty of chances to sell. But once you sell, it's gone forever."


Conservationists are working to protect the York River watershed, which drains about 33 square miles in York and parts of Eliot, Kittery and South Berwick. The York river begins at the northwest corner of York Pond, makes its way into Eliot before bending south through forests on its way back to York. The river then twists and turns in an easterly direction, before it begins to widen, turning south to pass under Scotland Bridge Road and the Maine Turnpike. It curves around Ramshead Point, continuing in a southeasterly direction, where it is crossed by Sewell's Bridge and Route 103. The river then turns sharply aroudn Stage Neck and empties into the Gulf of Maine.


"Money is pressure and there's a huge amount of money to be made there."

Staff photo by Gregory Rec

John Zacharias farms vegetables on his 220 acres near the York River. His land is considered a key piece in conservation along the river.

Staff photo by Gregory Rec

Joey Donnelly, at the helm, and his wife Carol Donnelly, second from right, both with the York River Association, talk about development pressures along the river during an outing on Tuesday. In front are, from left, Helen Winebaum, Sue Owen, Paul Weissman and Bucky Owen, who is with the Nature Conservancy.

Staff photo by Gregory Rec

The York River, a still-pristine oasis amid the increasing bustle of York County, is one of the most diverse wildlife habitats of its size in Maine.


A SURVEY OF fish habitats in the York River watershed done by the Wells reserve in 2001 revealed more than 28 species, including striped bass, trout, rainbow smelt and alewife. It also showed the river is a fertile nursery for many species, including bluefish and mullet.

THE YORK RIVER is also home to a number of birds, such as egrets and blue heron. The watershed's wetlands provide breeding and feeding sites for wood frogs, salamanders and rare species such as spotted and Blanding's turtles.




Article © Copyright 2002, Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.


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