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Working Waterfront Access Under Assault

Having access to the water is fundamental to fishermen. You can’t make a living from the sea if you can’t get to it. Maine currently is suffering from an increasing erosion of that access which imperils the state’s lucrative fishing industries and the character of the state, according to a 2021 report commissioned by the Island Institute.

The Critical Nature of Maine’s Working Waterfronts and Access to the Shore notes that, “Any way you measure, whether raw economic data, heritage and history or community, Maine’s working waterfront and our ability to earn a living on the water is integral to who we are, and who we should be.”

The report highlights the many factors that are eating away at access to the water, chief among them the rapid rise in real estate prices. Waterfront properties have always been highly valued but the influx of new buyers from out of state precipitated by the 2020 coronavirus outbreak has resulted in a painfully sharp increase in price along the coast.

The report cites data that show:

  1. In 2020, 30% of all homes sold in Maine were purchased by out-of-staters and the median sold price increased 13.8%.

  2. The number of home sales increased by 9.8% in 2020 and all median sold prices were greater than $100,000 for the first time.

  3. 2020 recorded the highest number of home sales and highest median sales price since record-keeping began in 1998.

“These statistics underscore a long existing trend of coastal real estate becoming too expensive for local residents to afford, and an influx of people coming to the state who may not understand or appreciate the importance of our marine industries,” the report stated.

The ripple effects of higher priced waterfront property are many. Younger fishermen and their families may not be able to afford to live in a coastal town. Sternmen and those who work on the docks may have trouble finding affordable rental housing. For lobstermen who live inland, transporting gear to and from the shore becomes more problematic. In addition, an inland lobsterman’s right to “territory” — the part of the seafloor closely associated with a particular town and harbor — then comes into question.

The report notes that existing state programs and the efforts of communities to protect existing waterfront access are not coordinated nor funded well enough to address the problem. The Working Waterfront Access Protection Program (WWAPP) within the Land for Maine’s Future (LMF) program purchases the development rights in waterfront properties to ensure they stay in marine use. But, as the report points out, “…the application process is rightfully complicated, the funding is erratic by its nature (bond funded) and, as revealed in interviews with LMF’s director, there is no real data or strategy in place driving the selection of properties. The process is a passive one; WWAPP is not adequately staffed to seek out projects in the most at-risk locations, nor does the data for such a selection exist currently.”

A sharp increase in home sales as a result of the pandemic has also increased prices throughout the coast and accelerated concerns over Maine's scarce working waterfront. Photo by Maine Lobstermen's Association.

The continued loss of access to the waterfront will have long-term impacts not just on individuals but on the state as a whole. The fishing industries of Maine produce a lot of revenue, more than $516 million in 2020 alone. Of that figure, nearly $406 million came from lobstermen, underscoring the importance of the fishery to the coastal economy. By contrast, in its most recent budget the state allocated $40 million for the LMF program. Of that total, only 10% (or $4 million over four years) is dedicated to protecting working waterfront.

The reports points out the disparity between what Maine’s working waterfront provides to the state in terms of revenue and the minimal amount of money the state and nonprofit organizations appropriate for its long-term preservation.

“What is most striking in the analysis of Maine’s working waterfront is how little is in place for protection of working waterfront and access when considered against the economic impact our working waterfront delivers (not to mention culture, heritage, community). Maine’s approach to protecting its working waterfront has not received the funding or attention it deserves from the private sector, particularly when compared to the support garnered for land trusts.”

To combat the scattershot approach to access protection, the report strongly suggests a comprehensive and strategic approach by the state in collaboration with the private sector. Needed is “a statewide foundation (or funding for an existing entity) which serves to assess the needs, buy and protect the real estate and otherwise spend time actively protecting Maine’s working waterfront” and “a comprehensive, statewide plan to protect Maine’s working waterfront and access to it.”

Because, as Chad Strater, owner of the Boat Yard, a boat service company in Yarmouth, was quoted in the report, “If the working waterfront goes away, it’s not coming back.”

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