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  • Writer's pictureMonique Coombs

The Gentrification of the Working Waterfront

A version of this article originally appeared in the September issue of Commercial Fisheries News. Please consider subscribing to CFN for all our fisheries news! You can also find CFN in marine stores along the coast.

Maine’s working waterfronts are facing a complex blend of challenges that make preserving, protecting, and advocating for these important places an incredibly difficult and often emotionally fraught task. With rapid technological advancements, shifts in demographics, and the dramatically evolving economic landscape, Maine’s fishing industry and working waterfronts are at a vulnerable, pivotal, and critical crossroads.

It’s a balance to embrace modern trends while safe-guarding historical and traditional industries like commercial fishing in coastal communities. It’s a task that requires careful consideration and often incredibly contentious conversations. But the waterfront, local businesses, and coastal businesses are at an interplay, and we need to do better to identify strategies to ensure that working waterfronts continue to thrive for generations.

I don’t think anyone has figured out how to do that yet and I think this is because, for the most part, people are mostly averse to contention - especially regarding sensitive topics like gentrification, class, inequity, and economic backgrounds. We also have yet to identify the specific problem. Why are our communities changing and what prevents them from creating processes that help protect and preserve traditional and generational use?

Maine’s waterfronts and coastal communities are some of our most cherished spaces, but they have undergone significant changes. COVID migration, climate migration, and the rise of remote work, have brought many newcomers to the state. This surge in population has placed new demands on Maine's amazing working waterfronts, stretching their capacities and posing challenges for fishermen and their businesses.

In 2020, the world changed, people reprioritized their values, and technology advanced to accommodate people’s ability to quarantine. For fishermen, not much changed during this time because fishing is already an isolated occupation, and they are accustomed to handling inherent risks as a part of their daily routine. Basically, the potential risk of contracting COVID was not significantly greater than the risks they already navigate on a regular basis. For everyone else, though, panic ensued, and urban dwellers sought solace and safety in more rural areas, like the coast of Maine.

Over the past few years, demographics and economics have changed dramatically in Maine because of this. It’s hard for people making Mainer dollars to compete with new residents with Colorado, California, or Texas salaries. And the basic premise of housing is, like with all products, about supply and demand. While Maine is a large state, our coastline is limited, and when everyone wants to live on the coast of Maine, prices skyrocket. Of course, this is somewhat of an over-simplification, but that’s really the gist of it.

When I first started thinking about the changes in our coastal communities, and what kind of impact I could make both as a fisherman’s wife and working for the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, I only really thought about gentrification as it pertained to urban communities and places like Brooklyn. But is gentrification happening in our coastal communities? Is “coastal gentrification” a thing?

Gentrification is a socio-economic and (usually) urban phenomenon characterized by the transformation of a neighborhood or area through the influx of wealthier residents, businesses, and investments, often leading to changes in the demographic, cultural, and economic landscape. This process typically results in rising property values, rent prices, and overall living costs, which can displace long-standing residents, typically from lower-income backgrounds. Gentrification can also lead to shifts in the neighborhood's character, as traditional businesses and cultural elements may be replaced by upscale establishments, altering the social fabric and dynamics of the community.

Let’s look at some examples of things that have been in the news recently:

A single mother of four in Rockland is being forced to move out of her apartment of ten years after receiving a notice to vacate from her landlord's attorney. She was informed that her space would be renovated for the market. The rising cost of living in the Rockland metro area, as evidenced by data from Maine Housing, has made it difficult for her to find affordable housing.

Warren’s Lobster House, a renowned seafood restaurant in Kittery, is for sale. The restaurant has signed an option agreement to sell the property and is awaiting details about the prospective buyer's intentions, but it sounds like the potential developers are interested in building apartments and condos. One of the owners was quoted in an article saying, “Should the prospective buyer decide to not move forward it is still our intention to list the property for sale because ultimately it is no longer sustainable to operate and maintain a building located on a pier over the water.”

A dispute over the ownership of a portion of working waterfront on Orr's Island led to a lawsuit filed by a co-owner, Jack Sylvester Jr., seeking to force a sale of the property. Sylvester wants to become the sole owner of the property, known as Barleyfield Point, which has been used as a public amenity for generations. The property, partly owned by about 16 people, including Sylvester, has historical significance for fishing activities and community use. The move has raised concerns among nearby residents that public access, fishing gear storage, swimming, and recreational activities would be lost if he becomes the sole owner. The lawsuit is headed for trial after mediation attempts failed.

The Boothbay Harbor Board of Appeals is managing numerous appeals and a lengthy process that hinders progress on the construction of the Eastside Waterfront Park in Boothbay Harbor because park abutters, Joseph and Jill Doyle, perpetuate conflict and have sought legal counsel in order to satisfy their concerns around parking and other issues despite the Waterfront Park’s efforts to abide by process and support community needs – including the needs of the fishing industry for more places to tie up.

The growing number of short-term rentals is also causing concern in many coastal communities. Recently Maine's Land Use Planning Commission (LUPC) began considering how to regulate short-term rentals for the first time. The commission held community meetings to discuss potential regulations due to complaints from residents about issues like noise, parking, and environmental concerns arising from short-term rentals in Maine. LUPC staff proposed a notification rule where property owners would inform the commission of their rentals and self-certify that their properties meet certain standards.

While places like Bar Harbor have more stringent regulations, the proposed rule aims to gather information and resolve issues without being overly burdensome. The LUPC will present its findings to its board in September, and potential regulatory options include a fee-based registration system or requiring permits for short-term rentals.

Lastly, and probably causing the most buzz in Maine right now, is what’s taking place on Popham Beach in Phippsburg. A family’s longstanding access to Popham Beach that they have enjoyed since the 1940s, is now at the center of a dispute. The Hill family, who have been accustomed to using a footpath from their grandparents’ cottage to the beach, received a letter from neighbors Richard and Sheila Tappen instructing them to cease using the property for access. While the Hills believed the beach to be a common area, the Tappens, who purchased a neighboring beachfront property in 2021, claim ownership of the piece of land and are denying access to what used to be considered a shared space. Such disputes involving private property rights are not unique and this will potentially set a precedent for how common areas are treated in Maine’s coastal communities in the future.

In all these cases, the common theme is a transformation in the use, ownership, or development of the spaces that impacts the existing community, potentially leading to displacement, changes in accessibility, and shifts in the character of the area – key aspects of the gentrification process. Regarding short-term rentals, these can contribute to the issue of gentrification where they are not effectively regulated. While the situation on Popham Beach is less of an example of gentrification, it is an occurrence that is becoming more prevalent on the coast and revolves around property ownership and access, and in some cases the issue of financial capacity and power could be a more severe issue and lead to issues more in line with gentrification.

I am on the comprehensive planning committee in Harpswell and in my role at MCFA, I sometimes attend planning board meetings with fishermen to help advocate for their businesses on the waterfront. I think these are the most stressful meetings I attend because of the contention in the room, the social inequity, and the overall passion and emotion people feel about the place where they live and work. I can feel my blood pressure rise and my heart rate increase when I hear new residents use fabricated environmental concern as reasons to deny waterfront access to any business or the public. It’s not that I don’t think there are valid reasons to be concerned about the environment, it’s that often these concerns are disingenuous and convenient.

Fishermen and friends stand outside a planning board meeting in Boothbay Harbor.

Like so many fishing families, I care deeply about the health of the environment and the Gulf of Maine, and this is exhibited and woven into all aspects of our lives; not something that is only used as a tool to force my perspective against others. I also find it extremely challenging to tolerate individuals who are oblivious to their privilege or believe that their privilege grants them entitlement.

Social inequity occurs when resources, opportunities, and advantages are distributed unevenly among different groups. Basically, some people enjoy greater access to power, wealth, and privileges, while others have different obstacles because of their socioeconomic standing or even constraints on their time. For example, when hardworking fishermen must take time away from the water to participate in meetings, affecting their income, to defend their businesses and livelihoods from the interests of well-off homeowners who enjoy greater flexibility in their schedules and have financial resources that enable them to dedicate time to meetings without concern.

It's entirely possible that within coastal communities, some individuals possess more time, influence, authority, and resources compared to the broader town population or the town itself. This dynamic is challenging during permitting processes, particularly when a wealthy landowner files an appeal and secures legal representation, impeding community engagement and draining town resources.

So, if you hear my voice shaking in a town meeting – whether it’s my community of Harpswell or any other amazing fishing community on the coast of Maine – it’s because I know how paramount the situation is, that we have an opportunity to persevere in the face of change if we continue to speak up, and that I’m probably a little nervous, too.

Fishermen, a great way to get involved and make a difference is to join a town committee and pay attention to planning board meetings. Many towns along the coast of Maine are managed by volunteer committees, which puts us at a disadvantage because retired people have more time on their hands. But get on the committees and do your best. Request that committees vary the timing of meetings to make it easier for working families to attend. Let other people know what’s going on in the community and when there’s an important planning board meeting or select board meeting, show up. I’ve found that while there are a few assholes in every group, for the most part, people who care about the community want to hear from the fishermen.



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