The third-generation owner of a commercial wharf on Harpswell Neck wants to ensure it remains working waterfront. Soon, he hopes to reach an agreement to sell a covenant on the property to the state, which would protect the wharf forever.
Clayton Whidden, 59, owns Whidden Lobster, on the east side of the Neck, overlooking Harpswell Sound and Orr’s Island. He supplies lobstermen with bait and fuel, then buys their lobster and sells it to wholesalers. He also harvests lobster himself aboard his boat, Mighty Quinn, and occasionally works as a merchant mariner.
As he invests in improvements to the property to prepare it for the next generation of fishermen, Whidden has applied to Maine’s Working Waterfront Access Protection Program. The 17-year-old program buys covenants on properties like Whidden’s to ensure their “permanent availability and affordability” for commercial fishing and restrict any activity inconsistent with this aim, according to program materials.
The Land for Maine’s Future Board will vote on Whidden’s application Sept. 27. If the board approves his application, the state and Whidden will negotiate the price and terms of the covenant, so it could be next year before any deal goes through. But covenant or no covenant, Whidden will continue to carry forward his family’s legacy on Harpswell’s waterfront.
Clayton Whidden’s grandfather, Malcolm Whidden Sr., bought the property about 80-90 years ago. It was already working waterfront, a base for boatbuilding and fishing. Clayton Whidden’s father, Malcolm “Laddie” Whidden Jr., bought the property around the 1960s, after which it became known as “Laddie’s.”
Both elder Whiddens continued the property’s tradition of boatbuilding and fishing. Whidden Sr. built dozens of dories and a few lobster boats, including his own 43-foot wooden boat. He was also a charter captain, taking tourists fishing for 25 cents an hour.
Whidden Jr. focused on repairs to both fishing and pleasure boats, even designing and building a marine railway to launch boats and haul them in. He also built several new skiffs and a couple of lobster boats.
Clayton Whidden grew up on the wharf. He started to go lobstering with his father when he was 2 years old and got his own skiff when he was 10. He bought the wharf from his father in 2014.
“I loved it,” he said of the business and property. “I wanted to see it grow and flourish.”
The family history is evident in every aspect of the business. Clayton Whidden owns the property through a company named Evelyn D. LLC for his grandmother, whose maiden name was Dunning. He built a wooden arch over a walkway and inscribed it “Laddie’s” to honor his father, a longtime Harpswell selectman who died in 2020. He does business under the name Whidden Lobster at the end of Whidden Road. He buys lobster from 10 boats, all but one of which have a family connection to the Whiddens. His daughter, Amanda Whidden, helps with bookkeeping.
Clayton Whidden has set out to modernize the facility. He tries to complete one project each year and estimates that he is halfway through a long list of upgrades.
Construction of a bait cooler is underway now. He replaced one section of wharf last year, another two years ago. In both cases, he replaced the wooden surface with concrete, which lasts longer and keeps salt water off the wooden frame below.
As he replaces each section of wharf, he raises it by a foot to protect against flooding. “We’re seeing more storm activity,” he said. A few winters back, four separate storms drove seawater over the top of the old pilings. The higher elevation will also make it easier for trucks to drive on and off the wharf.
In the future, Whidden plans to build a 52-by-70-foot boat shop on the hill above the wharf to provide a space where lobstermen can work on their boats; install a platform lift, which will make it easier for lobstermen to load and unload traps; and finish a concrete boat ramp in the location where his father had a marine railway.
Whidden wants his wharf to rank among the best around, with amenities that make it attractive for lobstermen.
“This is going to be one of the nicest, I think, on the coast, for a private wharf,” he said.
Whidden staffs the wharf alone. He invests much of his income from the business and from his own lobstering back into the wharf. He makes improvements to the wharf himself, contracting out only when necessary. For example, he had to hire a barge to drive new pilings — the wooden posts that support the wharf — into the seafloor.
Even with this substantial investment of his own income and labor, he estimates that about $600,000 of work remains to finish the projects on his list, such as building the boat shop and replacing the rest of the wharf.
He found out about the Working Waterfront Access Protection Program from his son, Evan Whidden, a specialist with the Maine Marine Patrol who heard about the program from a college friend.
The program was established in November 2005. “The Maine Legislature and voters recognize the need to take action to protect and secure commercial fishing access at a time when increasing demands for coastal waterfront lands and rising land values and property taxes are making it difficult for commercial fishing businesses to retain working access to the water,” according to program materials. “There is often a significant difference between the market value of a waterfront property and a reasonable business value of the property for commercial fishing purposes.”
The program seeks to fill that gap. In exchange for a covenant, it pays the owner the difference between the business value and market value.
In an example it gives, a property has a value of $540,000 while in use for commercial fishing, but a value of $720,000 on the open market. The difference, $180,000, is the value of the covenant.
The covenant “runs with the land,” which means it stays in place “regardless of future ownership,” according to the materials. The state gains a “right of first refusal,” which allows it “to intervene and enforce the terms of the covenant” during any transfer of the property.
“This is one program where I think the state has hit the nail on the head,” Whidden said. “It’s needed to protect this industry. Without it, you just look across the bay at how many houses are on the shore.”
“I would guess it’s not for most people, because you have to give up so much,” he added.
Whidden’s property is in a trust and will eventually pass to his two children. “You really have to make sure that it’s going to work for the future generations when you sign on the dotted line,” he said of the covenant.
The value of the wharf goes beyond the monetary. It impacts the health and well-being of the lobstermen who rely on it, as well as their families, Whidden wrote in a letter to a program administrator.
If the state rejects Whidden’s application, he will continue to chip away at improvements to the wharf. “I’m doing what I’m doing with or without a grant,” he said.
“There aren’t a lot of places left where you can have commercial fishing,” he said, and he wants to provide one.
“I’d rather see farms and commercial wharfs than houses and condos, because we have to eat,” he said.