Down East 2013 ©
When Michael Coughlin retired from the State Department and moved to Castine five years ago, he knew he was moving to a town unlike any other on the Maine coast. The most strategic port in northern New England during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Castine has maintained its maritime heritage over the course of more than four hundred years, and Coughlin valued that salty connection over practically all else. He realized that the town’s largest entity — the state-operated Maine Maritime Academy — brought with it a level of activity that would disrupt his retirement at times. The so-called “MUG Month” in early fall, for instance, features underclassmen marching and chanting from the waterfront to the thirty-five-acre campus just up the hill — and passing directly outside Coughlin’s living room window. “Anyone who buys a house in a college town has to expect a certain amount of change and activity,” Coughlin remarks.
But in 2007, when townspeople learned that Maine Maritime Academy intended to buy a Federal-style mansion directly across Battle Avenue from the main campus to use as the president’s house, Coughlin and others in Castine decided it was time to keep their community from becoming a campus. “I spent most of my life fighting the cold war, and the last thing I wanted to do was get involved in something contentious,” he says. “But there was a feeling that this was the line in the sand.”
The fight that ensued was literally over that line, with the town contending that the academy could not cross Battle Avenue and make the Abbott House part of its campus. Though the town eventually lost its legal fight, residents like Coughlin, town officials, and even the academy say that the $39,820 in municipal funds spent were worth every penny. The battle on Battle Avenue exposed not just tensions between town and gown, but also the oddly symbiotic relationship Castine and the academy need to foster if each is to survive, let alone prosper.
Tensions, both internal and external, are nothing new in Castine. In the seventeenth century, French, British, and Dutch forces all clashed over the peninsula known as Pentagoet, at the confluence of the Bagaduce and Penobscot rivers. In 1779 American naval forces suffered what would be their greatest defeat until Pearl Harbor when an ill-prepared expedition bungled an assault on British-occupied Castine and was forced to scuttle their fleet on the shores of the Penobscot River. The burgeoning shipbuilding industry that arose on the waterfront here over the next hundred years was curtailed by the rise of the railroad, and by the twentieth century Castine had become an exclusive summer colony, with rusticators taking advantage of one of the most impressive collections of Federal and Greek Revival homes in the state.
In 1942, Castine entered its next life cycle when Maine Maritime Academy, a college for training merchant seamen, took over the former home of the Eastern State Normal School. Beginning with twenty-nine students and two brick buildings, the academy grew over the next half-century to include a five-hundred-foot-long training ship, State of Maine, and nearly two dozen buildings that served 721 students in 2000. The past decade has seen even more rapid growth, with enrollment up to 945 this year. What began as a strictly regimented, military-type program today has more than half the student body in a non-regimented, college program. Half the students now live off-campus, and a brisk fall afternoon inevitably finds young men and women in their tan uniforms walking the sidewalks or working outside at the academy’s bustling waterfront complex. A curriculum that once focused solely on operating tankers and tugboats has evolved to serve the needs of graduates who will go on to run oil rigs, power stations, and even the shipping division of Walmart’s corporate office.
Just as the academy has changed dramatically in recent years, Castine itself has seen its complexion altered in fundamental ways. Like many coastal communities, the town has seen its property values rise, with the town’s total valuation increasing 134 percent from 1995 to 2008, to just over $350 million. Simultaneously, the number of residences occupied year-round has decreased, with only about half Castine’s grand homes inhabited during the winter months as workers and young families are forced to commute “off-neck” from Penobscot and farther inland. Though the 2000 census recorded 1,343 residents, local officials estimate the number of year-rounders is actually about half that due to many academy students being included in the census count. The median age has also increased dramatically — the number of people over forty-four years old increased 27 percent, to 428, between 1990 and 2005 — to what town officials believe to be the highest in Hancock County. Vacancies have appeared in groups like the ambulance squad, which has actually had to reduce its service from seven days a week to five during the summertime due to a lack of volunteers, and at the fire department.
Economically, the past decade has been tough on Castine, situated fifteen potholed miles off Route 1. “The thing about Castine is that nobody finds us by accident,” remarks Mary Durost, manager at the Castine Inn, adding that for many visitors the town serves as a base for daytrips to Acadia National Park and Deer Isle. She says Castine’s tourist season has contracted over the past decade or so, from the Memorial Day to Columbus Day period seen in other coastal towns to practically just the month of August. “The thing that people love about Castine is that there are not many people, but the thing that makes it hard to run a business is that there aren’t that many people,” Durost says.
Virtually everyone in Castine agrees the town needs to find a way to improve the business climate if it is to survive as a year-round community. Total retail sales, adjusted for inflation, dropped from $5,300,000 in 2002 to $4,200,000 in 2008. Growth has been especially hampered by the fact that business activity is restricted to the town’s tiny downtown. “Since 1995, the number of active businesses in the town’s relatively small commercial district has declined, often the result of commercial establishments closing or being converted to residential uses,” the town’s comprehensive plan states. “It is extremely unlikely this process can be reversed.”
Walk the streets of Castine today, and you can’t help thinking the comprehensive plan is practically prescient. Judy Wylie’s Castine Historical Handworks, which sold folk art, textiles, wood carvings, and jewelry for the past several years, closed in September. The Reef, a local watering hole for some seventeen years, poured its last draft in October. What remains are two bank branches, four real estate offices, three inns, a bakery and jazz bar, a handful of shops and galleries, a convenience store, a pair of waterfront restaurants, a boatyard, and the Castine Variety Store. “If not for the academy, we wouldn’t be here,” declares Castine Variety owner Liz Conlon, herself a Maine Maritime grad. “No way.” She makes about two-thirds of her income during the summer months from tourists and summer residents seeking out her famous lobster rolls; the charge accounts that academy parents set up for their children keep her going through the winter. The Castine Inn’s Mary Durost says the only bright spots she experiences during the off-season are in early October, when the academy holds its homecoming and family weekends, and graduation week during early May.
Which is why it came as a surprise to some in Castine when there arose a groundswell of opposition in late 2007 to the academy’s plan to spend $1.45 million on the Abbott House and its 6.5 acres. Granted, doing so would remove $5,526 from the town’s tax rolls, since as a state institution the academy is tax exempt. The academy stated that it had no other plans for the property than to use it as the president’s house (the existing president’s quarters, across the street from the Abbott House, would become an alumni house). But within a period of just a few weeks a couple of hundred citizens, led by Coughlin, had circulated a petition and begun raising money. Coughlin says they ended up raising $35,000, all in small donations, for meetings and actions protesting the sale. In one dramatic incident, a sledgehammer with a note attached was thrown through the window of the real estate office handling the sale, though a connection to the land-use dispute was never proven. The town sued the academy, alleging that using the Abbott House represented an “institutional use” and was therefore prohibited under the town’s zoning ordinance.
“The point wasn’t so much the Abbott House; I think the acquisition of the Abbott House represented an expansion of the academy in a time when the impacts of the academy were being felt by some people in town,” says incoming Maine Maritime Academy President Bill Brennan, who assumed leadership of the school in May. Brennan, who admits his selection was probably influenced by his longstanding ties to the town, believes that the speed with which battle lines were drawn was largely a result of failure to communicate on both sides. “The degree of animus surprised me as someone who grew up here, and the way it spiraled was a surprise.”
In the end, an appeal to the Maine Supreme Court ruled in the academy’s favor, but did so by explicitly stating that the Abbott House could be used as the president’s residence — and only as a residence. “I looked at this as a business process, and by going to the law court that settled it finally; it doesn’t allow anyone to second-guess anything,” says Castine Town Manager and Code Enforcement Officer Dale Abernethy. “People were happy to see that the town was enforcing its own rules — it wasn’t just rolling over.”
Coughlin was one of those people. “In a lot of ways, the Abbott House was the best thing to happen to the town,” he says. “It validated the town’s zoning, and its ability to zone for the academy. Also, people in the academy seemed to finally begin to ‘get’ it. We have new leadership there, and clearly a recognition that the academy needs the town and the town needs the academy.” Surprisingly, Coughlin says the organization he helped form to fight the academy is in the process of reorganizing — as a booster group for Maine Maritime Academy students.
“Like any college town, there’s a tension,” says Joan Bothwell, a docent at the Wilson Museum, which displays artifacts from around the world collected by John Howard Wilson, a geologist, explorer, and former seasonal resident.
If the past six months are any indication, the new leadership of Bill Brennan, a former Maine Department of Natural Resources Commissioner and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) administrator, will go a long way toward healing the wounds left by the fight over the Abbott House. Just three months after stepping into his new job, Brennan, who actually mowed the Abbott House’s lawn as a child and married the town doctor’s daughter, invited town selectmen to speak at the academy’s first annual convocation — a simple, though unprecedented gesture. Students are now regularly lectured in how to exist within a town community, whether that means learning to leave precious parking spaces open for visitors or keeping the after-hours festivities under control. Last year academy students visited the Abbott School, home of the Castine Historical Society, to study geographic information systems and local history.
“Every place has its growing pains, even Castine,” remarks summer resident Lynne Dearborn. “For us, it was the Abbott House.”
The town, too, has discovered the asset that Maine Maritime Academy represents to its survival. Up to half of the volunteer fire department is composed of Maine Maritime Academy students and staff (including Brennan), and the academy regularly hosts suppers and other public events. When a microburst in September 2007 covered Castine’s streets in limbs from the town’s historic elm trees, academy students wielded many of the chainsaws during the cleanup, and elderly residents were temporarily moved into academy buildings. Rooms in summer cottages are once again being offered to academy students, as seasonal residents realize the advantage of having a light on in their homes versus having Castine’s streets go dark from September until June. “The town’s problems have to do with the academy, and the town’s solutions have to do with the academy,” Michael Coughlin points out.
For Coughlin, the changed relationship between Maine Maritime Academy and the town was dramatically demonstrated this fall, when “MUG Month” commenced. As he and his wife once again prepared to deal with the youthful commotion outside their door, they noticed something different. The midshipmen amassed as usual and made their daily march from the water to campus. But this year as they passed through Coughlin’s neighborhood, they did so in silence, a subtle salute and recognition of what it means to live in a place like Castine.
“Castine is no longer a town that has a college in it, it is now a college town,” Brennan declares. “And living in a community requires civility.”