The Vanishing Point
Over the past decade, lobstermen Jeff Donnell and Mark Sewall have watched the working waterfront in York steadily shrink as docks and shorefronts have been snapped up at sky-high prices for summer homes and condominiums. Fishermen "used to have all kinds of access in York," Sewall explains, "but now we're down to a couple of town docks. The oldest commercial pier in town — three hundred years old — was sold a few years ago and turned into a private home."
York's experience isn't unusual. In the past ten years, Maine has lost 20 percent of its working waterfront, those vital stretches of shorefront, docks, and wharfs that keep the state's trademark fishing and boating industries alive. Seventy-five percent of what's left is privately owned and vulnerable to being sold into new uses.
The crisis has inspired new and radical strategies to save what's left — special tax treatments and state bond funding, conservation easements, zoning laws, land trusts - that have made Maine the national leader in efforts to protect and preserve working waterfront. Mainers are featured speakers at conferences and seminars all over the country, and protection strategies first developed here are becoming the models for efforts as far away as Seattle and Florida.
"I get calls all the time from people in other coastal states asking what we're doing to preserve working waterfront," explains Jim Connors, a planner with the State Planning Office and a member of the Working Waterfront Coalition, a statewide group formed four years ago to fight the loss of commercial shoreline. "As far as they're concerned, we're the ones with the answers these days." Connors is helping to organize a major national conference on working waterfront preservation to be held in Virginia this month. "Maine's experience will be a major part of it," he says.
"We did things that had never been done before," says lobsterman Sewall, who with Donnell led the 2003 fight to save Sewall's Bridge dock in York using a first-in-the-nation conservation easement. Since then he has spoken at several fishing industry and conservation forums about how the pair partnered with the York Land Trust and other organizations to buy and protect the dock.
Donnell and Sewall demonstrate that Maine's fishermen depend on more than just healthy lobster populations or a good shrimp season. They need access to the shore — docks and wharfs to land their catch, space to store their traps and mend their gear, shorefrontage for boatyards and marinas. That's an increasingly precious commodity in a Maine where even a one-sixth of an acre lot on the water costs eight hundred thousand dollars — the asking price for Sewall's Bridge dock.
The fact that shorefrontage is far more valuable for a cottage or condominium than as a parking lot for lobstermen's pickup trucks is an imposing obstacle. The Sewall's Bridge dock plot was tiny, but the owner already had all the permits he needed to build a house when his plans changed and he listed it for sale.
Donnell and Sewall — whose ancestors had once owned the property — had tried earlier to buy the parcel on their own. When it came on the market again, they went to Joey Donnelly, a member of the York Harbor Commission. Donnelly brought in Paul Dest, director of the Wells Estuarine Reserve, as well as representatives from Coastal Enterprises, Inc., the State Planning Office, Old York Historical Society, and York Land Trust.
The York Land Trust was a vital partner in the project, first by negotiating a lower price of $710,000 and then putting up $410,000 of the price for a conservation easement on the property. Donnell and Sewall put up the remaining $300,000 to buy the property and the 2,290-square-foot dock with help from a loan from Coastal Enterprises, Inc., the Wiscasset-based nonprofit development organization. It was a package that had never been tied together before, and it has made Donnell and Sewall the poster boys for the campaign to save working waterfront.
"It's that demand for a fixed, limited resource," says Connors. "Over time, as prices go up other competing uses dominate the market, another piece of shorefront access is lost. The threat is real and mounting all the time. I call it a slow-moving crisis. The advantage is that we can see the need to act now before those options are lost."
The involvement of land trusts in working waterfront preservation marks a major change in the focus of conservation efforts. For the past century, since the establishment of Baxter State Park, the prime targets of conservation campaigns have been wilderness and undeveloped shoreline. The move to protect commercially valuable assets is new and says much about the way Maine is changing.
However, Maine has actually gone down this road before. Similar strategies of conservation easements and tax breaks have been used for decades to protect working forests and farms. But applying the same principles to working waterfront is requiring a certain shift in perspective.
"Conservation on the coast of Maine is not traditionally associated with working communities," notes Rob Snyder of the Island Institute. "The real leap that is required in order to be successful is to have the people who support land conservation begin to see the value of supporting the infrastructure of working communities."
It's a concept that still needs developing. When Elsa Martz began hunting for funds to save Holbrook's Wharf in Cundys Harbor two years ago, she searched through hundreds of foundations and nonprofits devoted to land conservation and historic preservation and made a startling discovery. "What I learned was that foundations are not tuned into the needs of commercial fishermen or the working waterfront," she recalls. "I did a computer search of a database of foundations. A search on 'working waterfront' turned up nothing. A search on 'marine uses' turned up nothing."
The Holbrook Community Foundation needed $1,465,000 to buy the wharf and its associated land and buildings, including an historic village store. "We thought the money [to save the wharf] would be one-third from Land for Maine's Future, one-third from private donors, and one-third from grants," Martz says. "Instead, we've raised seven hundred thousand dollars in amounts ranging from five dollars to fifty thousand dollars from 595 individual donors."
Working waterfront projects have universally displayed amazing strength in terms of grassroots support and commitment. "To raise seven hundred thousand dollars in Cundys Harbor, Maine, is simply miraculous," Martz points out. "It really indicates the level of local feeling about this."
The Land for Maine's Future program is putting up three hundred thousand dollars and the Trust for Public Land has provided a bridge loan to finance the balance. The foundation bought the property in December. "The lease income from the wharf, the store, and the house will be enough to pay the mortgage," Martz explains. "We'll be self-sustaining and have enough to hire a manager to oversee the properties."
The public money is coming from a special $2-million bond issue approved by Maine voters in November 2005 and administered by the Land for Maine's Future program. The first six awards were announced in January, for projects ranging from purchasing access to clam flats in Machiasport to helping the Spruce Head Fishermen's Co-op in South Thomaston buy property it had formerly leased.
That same November 2005 ballot passed an amendment to the Maine Constitution to allow working waterfront to be taxed at its current use valuation, not at the "highest and best use" value as non-marine residential or commercial development. The new system, similar to that already used for forestland and farms, took effect in April.
Those two votes showed that Mainers value working waterfront for what it means to the larger community, observes Jennifer Litteral, the Island Institute's marine programs officer. "Seventy-two percent of the voters supported the amendment," she notes. "There's a message there."
Working waterfront has a long history of gentle treatment at the hands of voters. A major waterfront-protection measure came in 1987 when the people of Portland voted to amend the city's zoning laws to bar non-marine uses from a long stretch of the city's famous waterfront. The move came after the highly controversial conversion of Chandler's Wharf to condominiums. Five years later the zoning was amended to allow non-marine uses upstairs in waterfront properties, a change that actually helped strengthen the law's original intent.
The strategy has worked in small towns as well as large cities. "It was a no-brainer," recalls Southwest Harbor harbormaster Gene Thurston of his town's decision way back in 1982 to restrict half the harbor to commercial fishing and marine uses. "That was the first year we were going to have zoning," he says, "and we had our first condominium development show up at the head of the harbor. We could see what was coming and the need to protect the waterfront."
The zoning has been challenged just once, by a boatbuilding company that wanted to develop residential units on part of its land. "The zoning board cut it down right away," Thurston recalls. Today Southwest Harbor still has one private lobster dock left, along with two commercial docks and three town-owned docks.
The town also has an active marine industry base of boatbuilders, marinas, and more than fifty-five fishing boats. "We've actually gained twenty or twenty-five lobstermen in the last ten years or so," Thurston says, "mostly young fellas who can't find space in the other harbors on Mount Desert Island anymore. We've got a couple of scallop draggers left. Not many urchin boats these days. The only good fishery now is lobsters."
And there lies one of the most disturbing questions about efforts to save the working waterfront: Why bother?
Except for lobstering, Maine's larger fishing industry is in a shambles, with landings so low that the Portland Fish Exchange faces a tenuous future and the future of the fishery itself is in doubt. The fishing industry in Maine is a faint shadow of its former self, and growing fainter by the day. (Elsa Martz prizes a photograph she found recently of the eleven whiting draggers that operated out of Cundys Harbor in 1970. None are there today.)
According to a mapping project completed in January by the Island Institute of Rockland, Maine has only twenty miles of working waterfront left among 5,300 miles of coastline, down from twenty-five miles in the late 1990s. But if the fishing industry itself is shrinking, doesn't it make sense that the landside assets supporting it would shrink as well?
"If you look at it from an economic perspective, we're talking $750 million in state economic activity and 39,000 jobs," points out Rob Snyder at the Island Institute. "So you have to care purely from a jobs and economy perspective."
The Island Institute has taken a leading role in both the Working Waterfront Coalition and individual conservation efforts. This spring the institute announced the formation of its Affordable Coast Fund, which will make grants for technical assistance and purchases of land and development rights, "always with the goal that the property remains available for working waterfront in perpetuity," Snyder explains.
Snyder also argues that efforts to rejuvenate the groundfish industry will be fruitless without shoreside facilities to support it. "We're fortunate that the lobster industry is healthy," he allows. "You don't want a bunch of signs out there [on protected docks] saying: 'Waiting for future fishing to come back.' It's fair to say that a lot of work has to be done to make sure our fisheries are managed sustainably. It's absolutely a complementary piece to this work, though, because without one you don't have the other."
"Right now lobstering is holding it together for all the other fisheries," explains Hugh Cowperthwaite, the fisheries project coordinator for Coastal Enterprises. "Groundfishing is in a long, slow decline. So the face of fishing in Maine is definitely changing. We're trying to hang onto that infrastructure, that heritage and culture. It's what brings a lot of people to Maine."
The impact of tradition weighs heavily on waterfront preservation efforts, with many of the arguments having their echoes in earlier debates about preserving farmland and timber. "People look at the Maine flag, and they see farming, fishing, and forestry," Snyder points out. "There are no roller coasters there. We need to keep it that way.
"Even the Brookings Institute study makes the point that the reason people come to Maine and the reason people want to stay in Maine is because of the traditional livelihoods that are still found here. Without that, this becomes a place like any other coastal state in the United States. So, if we want to remain distinct, we have to keep this asset."
"One of the biggest benefits of saving Sewall's Bridge dock," says Mark Sewall, "is that instead of driving by and seeing nothing but stone walls and shrubbery blocking the view, you see a couple of guys working their trade. We've had people stop and thank us for saving the dock. They tell us it still looks like Maine."