Harpswell- A Christmas Season Retrospective Recollection


Harpswell- A Christmas Season Retrospective Recollection--12/31/2019 by Kev.

There was once a small quaint Maine village that went by the name of Harpswell. This little peninsula, with its collection of connected and unconnected islands, had a rich cultural heritage of fishing and maritime commerce. Famous writers, drawn by its fierce beauty, wrote of its breathtaking scenery. Songs were composed on behalf of the town.

Like all towns in America, the town had some problems, but for the most part, life was idyllic. The children of Harpswell at the time grew up in a safe sleepy small town, free from the harsher reality of societal ills that plague larger, more developed areas.

That all changed when Fairwinds blew into town. It’s kind of ironic looking back, the name Fairwinds, because once the rancid breath of the project washed over the area, life as Harpswell knew it was about to take a sharp turn for the worse.

The first casualty of the intrusion was the sense of community itself. Startled by the suddenness of the proposal, brought late in the negotiating process to town residents, the citizenry reacted violently and emotionally. The town, already divided by glaciers geographically, now split deeply along similar geophysical lines. Those impacted directly by the project fought desperately against introducing industrial blight into their neighborhood. The other citizens of the town, mesmerized by the seemingly large offer of money, were not, at the time, as concerned about the physical impact of the venture and against the wishes of their fellow townspeople, voted for the project. In hindsight, the town residents complained that they didn’t have all the information they needed in order to make an informed decision and blamed this reason accordingly for some of what was to follow, but that was just the way the huge corporation wanted it. For they used that lack of expertise to turn the tables later, after the contracts had been secured.

Sadly, the proposal passed by a narrow margin. This unfortunately split the town further in two. Petitions circulated on Harpswell Neck for secession immediately following the vote, as the residents directly impacted by the negative overwhelming circumstances fought ever harder to deflect the advances of the industry in their backyard. Other regional surrounding towns, various impacted industry organizations, and environmental groups sued too; both in an effort to stop the construction of the project and/or to get their fair share of the financial pie, claiming it was their due—they were being harmed without offsetting compensation (the courts ultimately agreed and a portion of the proceeds were to be paid in perpetuity to certain affected parties).

The fight was for naught. Although the secession was ultimately successful and upheld by the courts, the same courts also held that the agreement voted on by the town originally was legally binding, and Fairwinds was allowed to move forward. Ironically the side of town that heavily voted in favor the project never saw a penny from it. All the money went to residents of the new town of Harpswell Neck. Even the folks that were against the venture originally were for keeping the money local. After all, they were the ones that had to suffer the day to day consequences.

Immediately assaulted was “The Neck’s” real estate and resource infrastructure. Once construction began, housing units sprang like mushrooms to accommodate the large influx of construction workers who desired close quarters to the job site…although another substantial number of them continued to commute down Route 123 from the surrounding area. Unfortunately for the local tourist establishments, the new traffic snarls on the narrow path discouraged ease of entry into and out of The Neck, and visits from day trippers and vacationers stopped almost immediately. Several town residents suffered untimely early demise due to auto related accidents stemming from over usage of the now dangerous road. Several town children were tragically killed on Route 24 when they had the misfortune of encountering drunk construction workers ending their day at work and commuting the now heavily traveled byways of town. “The TRAFFIC” and the population became a continual plague and systemic problem for the town and eventually choked the life out of the tourism industry.

Property values located close to the project instantaneously bottomed out…which allowed the corporation the ripe opportunity to purchase the properties from the former owners at fire sale prices, for they were highly motivated sellers. Some of the properties were converted into residences for the employees of the venture who were overseeing the construction of the physical infrastructure and managed ongoing operations. The rest of the properties were held in reserve for future expansion plans…which eventually came to fruition a few years later after yet another extensive expensive and exhausting court battle with the town.

Harpswell Neck’s larger parcel owners, seeing sudden riches in real estate, carved up their acreage and sold it off in small lots to support ever denser growing housing. This sudden overwhelming expansion put a tremendous strain on local water and sewer resources, but the situation was not helped by Fairwind’s refusal to allow the town to tap into their already existing salt to fresh water conversion facility, citing that profits did not justify the helping hand…it would cost the corporation too much to provide the assistance, and they would have to charge to town too high a cost to allow it. After still another lengthy court battle, the new town lost its appeal and was forced to build an expensive water and sewer pipeline from the mainland to support its ever-burgeoning population. They also had to provide Brunswick with new ongoing payments to cover the cost of running the pipe from their existing system.

This created the byproduct of exploding growth in the town, as physical barriers to unbridled expansion were now set aside. Dismayed at the unpreparedness of their land use laws, the new town council just barely had the chance to pass legislation curtailing any expansion of industry into the Basin Point tip area, where an energy related enterprise had wanted to put more tanks along the shores of Potts Harbor (attracted by the protection of the islands and due to the volatility of the associated energy product). Strict new zoning and land use regulations were hurriedly thrown into place as town officials struggled to cope with reigning in the chaotic changes that were occurring too rapidly to be adequately corralled. Unfortunately, the town never got around to comprehensively designing a thorough land use program.

Alarmed by the conversion of their once pretty town, some vacation homeowners sold off their parcels to condominium developers for a handsome profit, who proceeded to construct expensive, yet tasteful and exclusive gated communities along the shore. Other landowners, turned off by the increasing density and traffic along route 123, sold their property on the road to strip mall developers and other small commerce builders, as supporting small businesses began to crop up nearly immediately along the widening strip of Harpswell Neck Road. The first Dunkin Donuts opened up in the new little shopping plaza that they built just north of the post office on the corner of Allen Point Road, only 8 months to the day that construction began on the industrial complex.

Although some town property owners benefited greatly from the introduction of industry to the area, other citizens weren’t as fortunate.

Particularly hit hard was the fishing industry and the already economically challenged (Harpswell’s poor). Ironically, although some of the lower income residents had voted for the project originally, in hopes that some of that large reward would trickle down to them, they were noted as the first victims to fall as they were particularly vulnerable to the changes wrought by the venture. Because they weren’t skilled to begin with, there was no place for them in the new economy either. The construction jobs, where a unique skill set was required, was almost exclusively imported from out of state, and there weren’t really any positions left over for the local disenfranchised.

To make matters worse, most of the money garnered from the lease agreement was set aside, as it became almost immediately apparent that the town was going to be in dire need of it in order to offset its mounting expense load. Between the lawsuits, the unanticipated large municipal expenses of the industrial site impact, and the socio-economic consequences of the expanding population, taxpayers saw a slight reduction the first two years, but only very slightly. By the third year, the town saw clearly that it needed the cash flow…the situation had deteriorated, and taxes began their slow creep skyward. The once sacrosanct Skolfield property was unwillingly and unpopularly procured by eminent domain to accommodate the need for the building of the new school, there simply weren’t enough large parcels left in town that could be annexed to address the ever growing needs of the populace.

But the final nail in their coffin was the fact that property values away from the industrial site had soared. Even rental property costs had gone through the roof. Rents were exorbitant because the demand for housing in the town was stretched to the limits, and those without the commensurate income to adequately support themselves found that they had to move their families to less costly areas to live in than the now regionally expensive Harpswell. Folks living on the economic fringe were particularly hard hit and had to migrate elsewhere to poorer areas.

The fishing community, who had already been facing extreme challenges with over fishing issues…but had established a fragile balance to the system, was also nearly wiped out completely in the region. The delicacy and unpredictability of the ecosystem, while capable of sustaining the industry up to that point, took a brutally hard hit from the laying of the natural gas main to Cousins Island…a hit it never quite recovered from. By the time it did (and it was never quite the same since), the damage was done. Lobstering was predictably particularly uniquely gutted. Territorial wars erupted even before the first section of trench was dug, as local fishermen fought to change the zones and boundaries and achieve equality under the new scenario. Nobody wanted to “get stuck” within the zone waters that were to be where the pipe was anticipated to go, and the tankers likely to travel. Political battles were fierce, and nothing was settled by the time construction began on the pipe.

The problem was compounded because additional industry had moved into the area, placed there with the support of the State of Maine, who also was attracted to the additional revenue prospects—and that business had the unfortunate side effect of impacting the clam populations…which accounting for the adverse environmental domino effect that followed--reduced all healthy biological activity on the west side of Harpswell Neck. All maritime related commerce saw huge decreases in the amounts of catch derived from the ecosystem, and the ripple effect from the reduction resonated throughout the economy of the whole region. The cost of seafood at the grocery store hit astronomical levels, consequently lowering widespread demand for the products as households shied away from purchasing the more expensive seafood and tastes moved to less costly alternatives. Seafood restaurants also saw precipitous declines in clientele, as many no longer could afford to eat out at their establishments.

Everyone affiliated and affected sued and quickly overwhelmed the mitigation fund that had been established to cover the industry losses. It was, in retrospect, an apparent marketing ploy designed to convince area fishermen that their legitimate concerns could be handled appropriately, and thus win over their vote. But the mitigation fund proved dreadfully inadequate, soon went bankrupt, and was no longer supported by a town that had now had its own set of deep financial problems. Scores of related area businesses had to lay off their employees too, due to the now lower level of economic activity that derived its life’s blood from and was at least in part supported by the whole fishing industry base.

This was unfortunate, because work in the area was by then hard to find. Fairwinds had not brought a lot of permanent jobs with it, and the jobs that were available went, to a large degree, to some of the imported construction workers who had developed closer relationships with the conglomerate’s employees than local townspeople. Attempts to control and manage their business were squashed early in the process by Fairwinds, as they would not agree to hiring quotas sought by the town.

And finally, as the town had forever changed from its original natural beauty into something that would have been totally unrecognizable by the town’s original occupants…most who now had moved away to nicer places…..

No one foresaw or at least took seriously, that 15 years later while the country was currently at war, that the enemy could take control of and sabotage one of the now daily scheduled LNG tankers as they hijacked it into Portland and set its cargo ablaze in the harbor.

If only people had been smart enough to stop the vote from occurring in the first place…

It was so obvious and preposterous that Harpswell was an appropriate place to put such a landscape altering, ultra heavy industrial complex.

What were they thinking?