A graph shows changes in residential construction from 2008-2022. (Sam Allen graphic)

New houses in Harpswell are hard to miss. In a rural town where only a couple dozen houses are built each year, construction sites tend to attract the eye. Town records show that housing development has been increasing, albeit slowly. With a new comprehensive plan in the works, the town is trying to take stock of building trends and develop a strategy that will match residents’ values and needs.

Town data indicate the number of building permits for new homes issued each year increased only slightly over the past decade. The town issued an average of around 24 permits each year from 2013 to 2017, while the average was around 26 from 2018 to 2022. Coincidentally, the number of permits in 2013 and 2022 was the same: 20.

The high-water mark was 2017, when the town issued 35 permits. 2021 had the next highest number, at 34 permits. All these data reflect building permits, not actual construction, so they may overestimate actual development.

Harpswell’s town planner, Mark Eyerman, says he does not read too much into year-to-year variations, considering the small number of permits issued each year. In general, he says, the biggest factor driving building trends in Harpswell is the overall economic picture. “Building in Harpswell has gone up and down sort of as a function of the national economy,” he says.

A town report on permit data from 2008 to 2021 seems to bear that out. The average number of permits issued during the period 2008 to 2012 — which includes the Great Recession and the years immediately after — was 17. That’s around 30% lower than the 2013 to 2017 average.

It is not clear from the town’s data if recent economic turmoil has had a similar effect. The number of permits issued did fall from the recent high of 34 in 2021 to 20 in 2022, but the average number of permits issued has stayed relatively stable.

The number of permits issued to tear down an existing home and build a new one in its place may tell a different story, although the sample size is small. From 2013 to 2017, the average number of tear-down/rebuild permits, as the town calls them, was around three. From 2018 to 2022, that average was around six.

Eyerman points out that the number of houses being built only tells part of the story. He has heard anecdotal evidence that, since the beginning of the pandemic, a growing number of people are now living year-round in Harpswell homes that were once used only seasonally. That would mean more homeowners are spending more of their time in Harpswell than in years past.

A report from the Midcoast Council of Governments supports that assertion. It found the percentage of seasonal homes in Harpswell fell from 38% in 2016 to 32% in 2021, based on U.S. Census Bureau data.

Eyerman suggests that the current number may be even higher. “We really have no good information about that at this time,” he says.

A home under construction in the Quahog Farm development on Great Island. (Sam Lemonick photo)

The Midcoast Council of Governments’ Charlotte Nutt, who wrote the report, says recent development in Harpswell reflects the town’s divided characteristics. In some ways Harpswell looks like other coastal towns, like Boothbay or Bristol, towns with a high number of seasonally vacant homes relative to inland communities. But the decrease in seasonal homes is more in line with trends in inland towns.

“Harpswell is in a really interesting position, being a peninsula and multiple islands and being so close to the labor centers” in Brunswick and Bath, Nutt says.

Members of Harpswell’s Comprehensive Plan Task Force are studying these development trends. Among other things, that plan will lay out the town’s goals for future development, including how much will happen, what kind, and where.

Allan LeGrow is chair of that task force, as well as chair of Harpswell’s Planning Board. He says residents who’ve responded to the task force’s outreach want to protect what they see as Harpswell’s rural character.

He expects the upward trend in house building will continue in Harpswell. His sense is that people are building more houses and bigger ones, and that many of them are moving here from other states. He sees that growth happening especially along Harpswell Neck, with less along Harpswell Islands Road and little on Cundy’s Harbor Road.

“People want to come up here because it’s a beautiful area and it has this rural character. But the more people who come up here, the harder it’s going to be to maintain that character,” LeGrow says.

An additional complexity for the Comprehensive Plan Task Force is that residents have also expressed a desire for more affordable housing in town. LeGrow says it will be a challenge for the task force and the town to figure out how to maintain Harpswell’s character and accommodate reasonable growth.

The task force intends to finish the plan in 2024, but the plan’s recommendations will not take effect without residents’ approval. A 2005 comprehensive plan, the last one the town made, included a land use map that divided the town into zones intended to encourage development around existing settlements and discourage it in more rural areas. But voters never approved those zoning rules.

LeGrow is well aware of that history, and he thinks this time will be different. To make sure of that, the task force is working to get community support from the start by soliciting residents’ input at meetings, through surveys and in other venues. “Our hope is by getting as much input from the community as possible, that support will be there at the end,” LeGrow says.

Sam Lemonick is a freelance reporter. He lives in Cundy’s Harbor.

This article is part of “Development and the Harpswell Environment,” a Harpswell Anchor special report.