Fighting Sprawl: A View From The Trenches

By: - June 14, 2000 12:00 am

DURHAM, Maine — Ground zero in the battle over sprawl is right here, according to people who live in this small, rural community.

In a December 1998 survey of the town’s 3,607 residents, 89 percent said keeping Durham’s rural character was “very important.” But it won’t be easy: Durham is one of the fastest growing towns in Maine its population more than doubled from 1,264 in 1970 to 2,842 in 1990 and it’s estimated that in ten years almost 5,000 people will live in the town. Durham is located ten miles from the Maine coast on 38.8 square miles of heavily wooded land in the southernmost corner of Androscoggin County. New residents say they moved here because they like living “in the country” while still within a half-hour commute to southern Maine’s biggest cities and towns, such as Portland, Augusta, Lewiston, Freeport and Brunswick.

Low taxes also are an attraction: The average annual real estate tax is $1,900 on a new house with an assessed valuation of $120,000. Durham’s only public services are an elementary and middle school and road repairs. There is no town police force, volunteers run the fire department and residents pay per bag for trash pickup.

The town has no restrictions on the number of new homes that can be built. From 1970 to 1990, there was a 172 percent jump in new houses in Durham, and during the next eight years construction increased another 29 percent. In all of last year, 29 building permits were granted for new houses; so far this year, 17 permits have been issued, and there currently are seven tracts of land under development, with each expected to have between six and 13 houses.

“Durham is becoming a bedroom community,” says John White, the Town Administrator. “The reason people come to Durham is its rural character, and the more people who come to Durham, with houses on top of one another, you lose that character.”

With that potential danger in mind, the town two years ago approved a committee to write a new comprehensive plan the town now is operating under a plan prepared in 1984 that would govern Durham’s growth over the next decade. For the past year, I served on that committee, and struggled with the other 19 members to reach a balance between preserving the town’s rural character and safeguarding the rights of property owners. It was a year marked more by acrimony than agreement.

“The people of Durham don’t seem to realize they’re not a sleepy farming community any longer,” says Susan S. Saunders, who was chair of the committee last year.

Vying to be heard on the committee in particular, and throughout the town,in general, were four groups, says Saunders: “There are the militant conservationists, who don’t want anyone living in Durham, who want the land returned to its pristine past. And there are those who are frightened by the growth, and want to stop it at the current level. And there are the middle-grounders, those who aren’t sure what the town needs. And, finally, there are those who want no restrictions, the property-rights group, who believe less is best.”

I was somewhere in the middle, between those who wanted to stop growth and those who weren’t sure how to do it. But I knew that action had to be taken before the qualities that drew me to Durham were lost forever.

The most contentious debate was over land use: Should the minimum size of house lots currently 2.69 acres fronting on town-approved roads, 5 acres on so-called backlots be increased? Should a more densely populated village center be created for small businesses? Should commercial zoning be prohibited in the few remaining farmland areas? Should the town impose a moratorium on multi-house developments? We were unable to resolve any of these questions, and I resigned the committee, hoping that new members would have success.

Margaret Wentworth, a committee member and president of the town’s historical society, has lived off and on in Durham for the past 38 years. “I can remember when it was a farming community, but it isn’t anymore,” she says. “As more and more people wanted to live here, out in the country, more and more farmers realized they couldn’t make a go of it and began selling off the land.”

It’s a problem not unique to Durham, says John Maloney, senior land use planner with the Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments in Auburn. But, he adds, this town, with its absence of any village center and very limited public services, has become a symbol of the threat to a rural way of life.

John Del Vecchio, a planner with Maine’s State Planning Office in Augusta, agrees. “The general population is spreading out,” he says. “That’s sprawl, which I see as a threat to traditional farming and forestry activities as we know them in Maine. Folks are moving out of our cities into towns like Durham. There is a transition going on, a change in the working rural Maine landscape, and many of what folks would call rural communities are now suburban communities.”

Del Vecchio says that taking productive land and using it as commuters’ residences creates demands better schools, police and fire protection, trash pickup for which small towns such as Durham are ill prepared.

According to White, it costs the town about $4,000 to educate each child in the school, and even more for tuition to send Durham children to another town’s high school. If that new $120,000 house, for example, pays only $1,900 in taxes, and two school-age children live there, Durham’s expense is $6,100 a year.

Since Durham has no strong tax base, that shortfall must be covered by tax increases. But the town must approve any hike, and in the 1998 survey of residents, 90 percent said low taxes were very important to them.

What will it take for Durham to aggressively curtail growth? “A really large project,” says Saunders, “a huge tract of land, developed with many more houses at one time than Durham has seen, a number that will overwhelm the town and its school and support systems.”

According to White, that time is fast approaching. “The town,” he says, “is going to have to make some hard decisions.”

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