In Maine, A Rural Coalition That Works

Maine rural legislators from the inland had never worked with Maine rural legislators from the coast. Until they did.

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In the Maine legislature we know that our marine coastal areas are indeed part of our rural heritage and our current economy.  We understand that fishermen, clammers, lobstermen, mussel farmers, and those who run businesses dependent on ocean-based enterprises share many of the challenges faced by our farm and forestry centered family businesses.

We didn’t start off this way. For some time, land-locked Maine legislators couldn’t see the connection between rural communities and the waterfront.

In the Maine House of Representatives, legislators form informal groups to discuss issues they have in common.  These caucuses form around party lines, geographic areas, and policy concerns.

The Maine legislature has had a Rural Caucus for a decade, made up of legislators representing what are known as the Rim Counties: the foothills and mountains of western Maine, the farm fields and forests of Aroostook County, and the forests and fishing villages of Down East.

These were inland districts and the Rural Caucus discussed land use and ownership, taxation, and school funding.  In 2003, legislators representing midcoast towns, best known by other Mainers for its rocky coastline paralleled by US Route 1, joined the group.

 This portion of Maine’s coast is lined with former ship captain’s houses converted to high end B & B’s, fishing wharves, marinas, boat yards, as well as thriving restaurants and gift shops. The coastal Representatives were at first questioned by members of the Rural Caucus: “What problems could you possible face on ‘The Gold Coast’ of Maine?”

The common ties soon became obvious.

Lobstermen living in homes and fishing from wharves that had been in their families for generations faced the loss of those homes as property taxes rose.  Property values have risen with the discovery of this area by those who do not work the land or the sea, but appreciate it to relax, recreate, and retire.  The sale prices of homes on the coast, elegant or simple, created increased property valuations for those who had purchased homes decades earlier or inherited them.

What an odd predicament many found themselves in — to be at risk of losing your home and wharf because they were valued at a million dollars.  Yet this is where some Mainers have found themselves.

What is the role of State Government in this predicament?  Should public funds be used to help lower property taxes for those who now had a significant net worth due to the increased value of their homes?

 And what of those who must live near the ocean in order to run their businesses?  What could be done to keep wharves, bait shops, fishing co-ops and boat builders located on the coast?

Thus was born the Working Waterfront Coalition and the expansion of the Rural Caucus to include coastal legislators.

The first victory for this rural coalition came in 2005, when farmers and other inland rural people joined coastal folks to save Maine’s working waterfront. The Rural Caucus worked to change the state’s constitution to help fishing communities.

  The public agreed, approving a referendum allowing fishing wharves be treated in the same way as farmland when it came time to figure property taxes. Both used the simple tool of “current use taxation.”

Nancy Smith
Watson’s General Store in Cundy’s Harbor, Harpswell, Maine.

The second victory came in 2006 when Maine voters approved a small bond issue aimed at aiding Maine’s “Working Waterfront.”  The $2 million dollars raised in the bond has paid for 19 projects, including the construction of a pier in one of the few multi-fishery communities left on the coast, the purchase of development rights on shoreland essential for access to the fisheries, and matching funds to ensure that essential infrastructure for Maine’s fisheries is held in these business sectors. 

Mainers will continue to face the challenges of finding the balance between those who want to live on the waterfront because of lifestyle and those who live there to work. Vacationers, retirees and summer residents may not be accustomed to the sights, sounds and smells of our traditional industries.  Coastal real estate firms and chambers of commerce now publish brochures that describe what it is like to live in a fishing village or a town with a shipyard, in order to minimize conflicts between these two distinct cultures.  

The cumulative effect of all these efforts will be the continuation of Maine’s tradition of place-based food production and harvesting, along with the businesses and lives centered around serving the needs of Mainers who choose to live on the coast.

The lesson learned is this:  when farmers and fishermen band together to address common rural challenges, even from their different home fronts, great things can be accomplished. 

Rep. Nancy E. Smith is chair of the Business, Research and Economic Development Committee of the Maine House of Representatives. Rep. Leila J. Percy is the chair of the Marine Resources Committee.

 

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