As coastal Maine communities such as Harpswell continue to attract new seasonal and year-round residents from far and wide, there is a growing risk of longtime residents being priced out. The influx of new buyers can also lead to the loss of public access to amenities such as beaches and intertidal areas.
The process, known as gentrification, has been happening in and around Harpswell for at least a decade and has accelerated over the past five years, said speakers at an event held Tuesday, Aug. 15, in Harpswell.
The discussion was part of “Living and Working in a Waterfront Community: A Conversation Series,” which resumed with a panel titled “Gentrification, Access and You.” The event took place at Bowdoin College’s Schiller Coastal Studies Center on Orr’s Island.
Five local nonprofits — the Cundy’s Harbor Library, Harpswell Anchor, Harpswell Heritage Land Trust, Holbrook Community Foundation and Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association — have organized the conversation series for its third year, after two events each in 2021 and 2022. The organizers said about 70 people attended Tuesday’s town hall-style discussion in person, with more than a dozen others participating via Zoom.
“Gentrification, Access and You” explored what the terms gentrification and access mean to different sectors of the community and what challenges and solutions may lie ahead for Harpswell and other coastal communities. As with all conversations in the series, the event sought to foster communication between Harpswell’s working waterfront and the larger community.
Monique Coombs, an Orr’s Island resident and director of community programs for the Fishermen’s Association, served as moderator for the free event. The panelists were Ben Ford, an attorney at the Portland law firm Archipelago; Holly Parker, director of the Schiller Coastal Studies Center; Emily Coffin, seafood and fisheries policy coordinator for the Fishermen’s Association; Matt Gilley, a lobsterman living in Cundy’s Harbor; and Marissa McMahan, director of fisheries for Brunswick based-Manomet, a coastal ecosystem conservation organization.
Ford said communities that are vibrant and sustainable must be able to accommodate residents with a wide range of income levels, and that gentrification threatens that diversity. He said it also can lead to the loss of authenticity and cultural heritage, via a process he referred to as “Disneyfication,” in which older buildings are replaced with new ones that imitate traditional styles of architecture.
“Everything has a veneer of fakeness,” Ford said. “Things are becoming what Maine is supposed to look like in an L.L. Bean catalog.”
The panelists made a distinction between strategic investment designed to revitalize economically depressed areas and market-driven gentrification that tends to benefit people on the higher rungs of the economic ladder, no matter how well-meaning those people might be.
The COVID-19 pandemic has spurred a land grab along the Maine coast that has resulted in skyrocketing property values, McMahan said. Newcomers from away often don’t understand the local culture, which can lead to complaints and conflicts.
“A relative of mine sold a house during the pandemic — someone purchased it who was halfway across the U.S., never actually saw the property,” she said. “And we heard from the neighbors … that the people were really unhappy with the house, and one of the reasons they were unhappy was because they didn’t understand why there were so many blue tarps in people’s yards.”
Gilley said another negative aspect of gentrification is that it has led to fewer families with children living in the area, along with an influx of residents who often don’t seem to place as much value on getting to know their neighbors.
“When I grew up here, I knew everybody that lived on my parents’ road. If my parents were late coming home from work, I could stop in and they would give me a snack or something,” he said. “Everybody waved to everybody going down the road. … That has changed. I don’t know half the people in my community anymore.”
The panelists conceded that what’s happening in coastal Maine probably can’t be stopped. Home prices along the Midcoast still pale in comparison to the rest of coastal New England, making it tremendously attractive to moneyed out-of-staters even as it has become unaffordable for many locals to buy a house.
Coffin suggested that one thing longtime residents can do is encourage newcomers to engage with the community and consider the needs and wishes of their neighbors who have deep roots in the area. That includes their desire to maintain public access to beaches and intertidal areas, which has become a source of ongoing legal battles.
“I don’t think you can ethically gentrify a place,” Coffin said, responding to an audience member’s question. “Gentrification usually means displacement. That doesn’t mean you can’t try to be a good person while doing it.”
Parker said that, in general, no one likes it when new people arrive in a community and try to make changes or “fix” things without consulting those who’ve been there for a long time.
“You see this a lot, frankly, in academia, when folks enter a space and say, ‘Oh, you have this problem. We’re going to solve it for you,’ without actually sitting down with the people of the place and exploring with them what they’re seeing, what they’re experiencing, what their struggles are, and working with them to develop the solutions,” she said. “That’s patronizing.”
One way in which residents can help mitigate the negative effects of gentrification is by participating in the public process, said Allan LeGrow, chair of Harpswell’s Planning Board, who attended the discussion.
LeGrow said town officials hope to secure a more desirable future for residents through the comprehensive planning process and the development of a plan to promote affordable housing.
He encouraged the audience to attend meetings about both plans, including a community workshop on affordable housing scheduled for 6:30 p.m., Tuesday, Aug. 22, at Harpswell Community School, 308 Harpswell Islands Road.
“What do you want this town to look like 10 years from now?” LeGrow said. “Please participate. We want to know what your views are.”
Have a comment or news tip? Please contact J. Craig Anderson via email.