Cooper is one of those places on the way to someplace else. Unless you live there, the only reason to drive into the tiny town on Route 191 between East Machias and Calais is to drive out the other side. Cooper has one retail business, a general store that is more a labor of love than a profit center, and 145 residents, give or take.
And each one of them sends a chill up Catherine Carroll's spine. Carroll is director of the Land Use Regulation Commission (LURC), the state agency that oversees development in Maine's unorganized territories. And if most of the people in Cooper have their way, dissolving their municipal government and reverting to unorganized territory, they will all become her responsibility.
The folks in Cooper aren't alone, or even unique. Over the past ten years or so four towns and plantations have given up the ties that bind their local sovereignty together. More than a dozen other communities have seriously investigated the option. Some, such as Milo, have several thousand residents. Last year the Maine legislature was so alarmed at the trend that it toughened the requirements for municipal deorganization. After the bill passed, two more towns announced they wanted to dissolve.
To deorganize, a town must win approval for the idea in a townwide vote, earn the blessing of the legislature and the governor, and then receive a two-thirds supermajority from town residents for final approval. If all of that happens, the town simply ceases to exist. Gone are the annual town meetings, the weekly selectmen's meetings, the monthly planning board sessions, the school board, and the town road commissioner. All of those functions are taken over by the state and, to a lesser extent, county government.
"And they generate a great deal of work for us," Carroll says. When Centerville, population twenty-six, dissolved in 2003, Carroll had to assign a planner and a cartographer nearly full-time for a year to fold the town's blueberry barrens and bogs into LURC. "And that was relatively easy because there weren't a lot of rivers and lakes and roads," she notes. "When Madrid deorganized [in 2000] there was a huge deeryard zone debate that dragged on for years."
A LURC veteran who started with the agency in 1988, Carroll tries to take a neutral view of deorganization. She is regularly asked to testify before the legislature on town deorganization requests, and she makes a point of speaking neither for nor against the bills even as she readily admits that every town that gives up the ghost piles more on her already overcrowded plate.
Carroll's boss, Department of Conservation Commissioner Patrick McGowan, isn't as charitable. McGowan calls deorganization "a geopolitical cop-out" and "anti-New England."
"We're hearing of more and more towns that are looking into deorganizing," he explains. "That puts more pressure on [LURC] at a time when we are already facing huge demands. We have a staff of twenty-three, and we're being asked to deal with the Plum Creek proposal [which would develop 800 camp lots and two huge destination resorts across a broad swath of the Moosehead Lake region], two windmill projects, and our regular development applications. LURC is already overstretched, and if you're looking at adding to the municipal planning component, you're talking about a lot of additional work."
Prodded by the gigantic Plum Creek proposal [Down East, March 2005], the legislature this year gave LURC funding for two additional senior planners. But if Cooper is only the leading edge of a new wave of deorganization efforts, as McGowan fears, "we'd have to look at the entire LURC function. People in the unorganized territories look to us for fire protection, water quality, and construction and building permits, among other things. If those responsibilities grow, something would have to change."
Essentially LURC serves as planning board and zoning authority for the 8,000 people and 10.4 million acres of Maine that lie outside any town or city boundary. Created in response to the land development and recreational home construction boom of the late 1960s, the commission's jurisdiction stretches across almost half of Maine's land area and includes more than 450 townships, 39 plantations and towns, and 306 coastal islands.
"So far as I can tell, there is only one LURC in the entire country," Carroll notes, due to a unique combination of weak county government and large swaths of privately owned unorganized territory. In the West and Midwest, strong county governments oversee land outside municipal boundaries, and in many of those states the bulk of the unorganized land is federally owned.
Cooper is a classic example of a small town trying to cope with all the headaches that come from modern municipal government. Few of the people who live in the town actually work in the town; it has become a bedroom community for Machias and Calais. While the population has increased slightly in the past ten years, public participation in town affairs has dropped to the point where there's a real debate on the possibility of seeing some positions go vacant for lack of interest.
Eighteen months ago Kathy Hull, the town clerk, treasurer, tax collector, and registrar of voters, announced that she wanted to give up all her jobs to devote more time to her young family and the general store she and her husband (the second selectman) opened four years ago. No one has yet stepped forward. Hull continues to run town business — reluctantly — out of a computer-equipped cubbyhole at the store and a filing cabinet at her home. A backpack she carries between the two contains all the day-to-day paperwork needed to register cars, sign up new voters, and collect property taxes.
"One selectman and two assessors want to leave and can't find anyone to take their places," she notes. "You go to a town meeting, and there are five people there. We hold elections at the grange hall, which doesn't have a phone. We have six volunteer firemen, and five are over sixty years old."
State government wants to give Cooper a new computer to maintain voter registration records and other municipal needs. Hull and town selectmen have refused to accept it. "We would be responsible for maintenance, for buying new antivirus upgrades, for updating the programs," Hull explains. "We can't afford it. Besides, the power out here is so bad, the hard drive would likely get zapped within the first month."
Recently deorganized communities:
Towns that have recently expressed interest in deorganizing:
Joan Carroll (no relation to LURC's Catherine Carroll) knows exactly what Hull is talking about. She was the town clerk in Madrid for years before the town dissolved in 2000. Today she says she wouldn't go back for anything, and she thinks most locals would agree. "Nobody wanted to be in charge," she recalls. "I'd call a Planning Board meeting, and one person would show up. It just got to the point where things weren't getting done in town because nobody cared."
Carroll says Madrid's former tax rate of fifteen mils per thousand has dropped to eleven mils, although rising property values have pushed many tax bills back to where they were before deorganization. "There are still some people who don't like it," Carroll notes. "As far as I'm concerned, though, it has worked out fine."
Cooper's current effort to deorganize is actually the second time around for the town. Residents sent a petition to dissolve the town to the legislature in 1997, but it was voted down.
Right after that, the first selectman approached Jon Reisman, a longtime resident and a professor at the University of Maine at Machias, and asked him to take over his position. "That's the way it's done now, with so few people willing to participate in town government," explains Reisman. "If you want to give up a town job, you have to find your own replacement. It's not like bigger places, where there are multiple candidates for various posts."
Reisman, who in 1998 ran against then-congressman (now Governor) John Baldacci for the Second District congressional seat, is well known around Maine for his conservative politics and devotion to local control. But even he admits that Cooper has reached a point where local sovereignty isn't worth the price.
"We have some local control, but not a lot," he reasons. "If you look at what we have to do because of state mandates versus what we're free to do as a town . . . well, you have to ask, how much is it worth? Half our taxes?"
And there's the rub. Cooper sits next door to Township 14. Reisman says Cooper's mill rate currently sits just under twenty mils, compared to less than ten mils in the unorganized territory just down the road.
"They have the same services we have," Reisman notes, "even a little bit more, and half the mil rate. We pay to send our kids to schools in other towns. In Township 14 the state pays. We plow our own roads. In Township 14 the county plows the roads. We have the privilege of hauling our own garbage to the town transfer station. In Township 14, the trash is picked up at their doorsteps."
In other words, aside from the municipal pride factor, it's difficult for Reisman to find fault with the idea of leaving townhood behind. "LURC is not that difficult to work with," he reasons. "The town already has shoreland zoning regulations imposed by the state. We don't have a comprehensive plan. We thought of writing one, but if we can't find anyone to be town treasurer, for crying out loud, how do we find a group of people to serve on a comprehensive planning committee?"
Cooper "is just the kind of town that should consider deorganizing," Reisman concludes. "We're so small and isolated that we won't have much effect on any nearby towns."
The effect on the state might be another matter. "We issue about 1,200 permits a year for new construction or renovations for the entire LURC jurisdiction," explains Catherine Carroll at LURC. "About a quarter of the applications come from just thirty-nine townships and plantations. The Rangeley area gives us the most work by far because of the popularity of its lakes."
Despite absorbing former towns that usually have a higher population densities than the typical North Woods township, Carroll maintains that she hasn't seen a surge of new permits from deorganized territories. "Greenfield hasn't generated a lot of permit work for us, and Centerville has such a tiny population that we're not seeing much booming development there. Madrid has been lukewarm."
Cooper might not be so easy, she allows. The town has a lot of frontage on Cathance Lake, which has seen a modern-day Gold Rush of development interest. Town Clerk Kathy Hull expects several hundred new building lots to be developed in the next few years. If that happens after a successful deorganization, "obviously that would increase our workload — a lot," Carroll says.
Carroll isn't prepared to say that LURC needs more people to meet the needs of newly deorganized townships, but then "we'll have to wait to see which towns actually dissolve," she adds. "When both Atkinson and Cooper were talking about deorganizing, I'll admit I was getting a little nervous." Atkinson was rebuffed by the legislature, although there is talk the town might come back in a year or two for another attempt.
Nor is LURC alone in taking on a larger workload when a town dissolves. The Maine Department of Revenue Services takes over tax assessment and collections. The Maine Department of Education employs a superintendent to oversee the 1,100 students and six schools in the unorganized territories, with a budget of about $10 million. The Department of Human Services handles all general assistance needs. Even the Department of Public Safety gets involved in issues such as concealed weapons permits. Road maintenance becomes a county and state responsibility. Any decision a town once made moves up the governmental ladder and away from the local level.
"I constantly say to these folks that they're giving up all right to make decisions for themselves," points out Doreen Sheive, the fiscal administrator for the unorganized territories in the Department of Audit. In effect, Sheive is the town manager for the 10.4 million acres outside local government boundaries.
Sheive is often the first person a town contacts when talk of deorganization gets serious. "I get maybe ten calls every spring at town-meeting time from towns that want our deorganization information packet," she says. Oddly, she adds, this past spring she didn't get any calls at all. "The legislature had just tightened the requirements, and I think some towns were waiting to see how they played out," she offers.
The most common reason Sheive hears is taxes, closely followed by lack of local interest in running for town office. "Drew Plantation [in northern Penobscot County] wants to deorganize because it has so much tax-exempt land," she notes.
"The state keeps saying we should regionalize services," Kathy Hull points out. "Well, isn't [deorganization] the ultimate regionalization?"
Cooper today waits in an odd kind of limbo. In January, the town took its plan to deorganize to the state legislature and, according to Reisman, came within a hair of winning approval. Instead, the bill was postponed on assurances that state officials would work with the town to lower its highway maintenance costs by having the Maine Department of Transportation take over upkeep of Route 191, the main highway through town. Cooper may also see its town-clerk duties taken over by neighboring Alexander.
The efforts are supposed to be reviewed in the next legislature in January pending a final decision. If legislators decide to disapprove dissolution, "the town will be back there in a couple of years to do this all over again," Reisman predicts. "How much is being a town worth? Most people around here think it's too much."