Boothbay, ME

Education Provokes a Culture Clash on the Boothbay Peninsula

Mackenzie Andersen

Developers push for acceleration but practical ideas take time to crystalize.

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Man chasing moneyIllustration by mohamedhassan / freerangestock

In Maine, attracting young people to the state is a long-running challenge, especially on the Boothbay Peninsula, the number one baby boomer demographic region in the USA.

There is a plan by some in Boothbay to change the demographics- a fifty-million-dollar school system "to attract families to the peninsula". Developer Paul Coulombe pledged to run a non-profit fundraiser to raise the 2.5 million needed to complete the design.

Based on Coulombe's promise, the Boothbay-Boothbay Harbor Community School District Committee and Board of Trustees went ahead and conducted a search for an architectural design firm to design the project. Five architectural firms competed for the contract, a winner was selected, who turned out to be the same firm that had been in the planning stages since Oct 2019, Lavallee Brensinger Architects.

Then the funding did not materialize.

That the school board went ahead to select an architectural firm before they had secured the funds to pay for the initial stage of the project, let alone the fifty million dollars projected cost of the school system, testifies to how much confidence the leaders of Boothbay are willing to put in a man, merely because he has money.

What was the hurry? Who pushed for advancing the project before the funding was secured? Why?

The chair of the CSD Committee Vice-Chair Peggy Splaine is sounding like one who has realized that the committee has been manipulated, as reported in the Boothbay Register Splaine said when the winning design firm was announced, “hire” might not be the right term since the district did not yet have the approximately $2.5 million businessman and philanthropist Paul Coulombe pledged at the plan’s delivery. “I just want to clarify … because we don't have any financial pieces and we don't have any money in the bank … how can we be hiring someone without money to pay them,”

Good question, but why didn't the CDS Committee realize this in the first place. Isn't it standard procedure to secure the funding before advertising an opportunity that involves the time and expense of so many professionals? Why did the CDS Committee act so rashly? What is the hurry? Who is pushing the speed pedal on a huge transformational project seemingly beyond the means of the existing community?

There is no attempt by the advocates of the fifty-million-dollar school to disguise that it is a gentrification plan, with little discussion about education and contextual issues, such as the fact that the Boothbay Peninsula has a very small number of young people.

In 2019, the two towns, Boothbay and Boothbay Harbor were in sticker shock over an 8 million dollar price tag of renovating the schools, but times have changed. There is a real estate boom. The school system is part of larger plans that Boothbays real estate developers spin with visions of quadrupling the population density of the region.

With increasing frequency in Boothbay developers and politicians are breezily talking about "incentives". Kenneth Rayle, ran unopposed for a three year Boothbay Harbor selectman position, and said, blithely in his election write-up, that the housing shortage requires "steps which may involve zoning changes, incentives, or other practical ideas"

Practical Ideas"- now there is a practical idea! Let's open up that debate! Are the plans of developers that are getting most of the airplay "practical ideas"? A zoning change or an incentive might be a practical idea or it might not, but as a floating generalized category, it is neither here nor there, That is the way politicians talk, especially when they have no competition.

Who does Mr. Rayle propose will be financing the incentives? The state? the local taxpayers? Who does he propose will be the beneficiaries of the incentives? That discussion didn't happen.

Two local realtors are on the "workforce housing" issue. Cindi Watson and Deborah Yale have started a 501(3)(C) organization called the Boothbay Region Housing Trust, dedicated to "affordable workforce housing", with Watson and Yale specifying that they will be focusing on housing for "the professional classes" - read people working "quality jobs", defined in state negotiations with jobs created by large corporations, as the state trades corporate incentives for a quantifiable number of "quality jobs" defined by the Legislature as as "jobs that pay higher than average wages and benefits", ie, the Legislature is trading for a quantifiable amount of personal income tax revenue for the state, while exempting corporations from taxation as an incentive, among many other corporate incentives.

In 2021, after forty-plus years of centralizing the Maine economy, the professional classes need a non-profit organization to afford housing on the Boothbay Peninsula. The language, "workforce housing" is very upstairs-downstairs. apropos for the era of the continually expanding wealth divide. Do they hear themselves? "Master suites and workforce housing" is the marketing language of the local realtors.

BRHT is focusing on granular workforce housing – one piece of a trinity of housing problems plaguing the peninsula. Not the other two – subsidized or senior housing, said BRHT’s Debrah Yale. Though each issue’s problems are about the same – high cost, low inventory and high demand – the Boothbay Region, like Martha’s Vineyard, can find a way for workers, teachers and other professionals to live here, said Yale and Watson.

Watson and Yale might want to check the wording of the Boothbay Region Housing Trust incorporation documents that identify the non-profit purpose of the organization as balancing the needs and concerns of the greater Boothbay Region resources.

Watson and Yale are also advocating zoning changes- first, to get rid of the "archaic 1980's ordinances" that protect the working waterfront, begging the question, do Watson and Yale know that the working waterfront employs a workforce?

The Boothbay Region Housing Trust does not have a website, but their mentor organization on Martha's Vineyard does, and that will do, and so in the article about the new housing trust for the Boothbay Penisula, Watson and Gale just repurposed the front page image of the Island Housing Trust of Martha's Vineyard, showing what looks like a grid of urban townhouses, stacked wall to wall in a rural setting. The image gives us a clue where Watson and Yale, and possibly Rayle are going with "zoning changes". With a hot real estate market, real estate developers are pushing to decrease plot sizes for housing, so they can stack living quarters wall to wall as they do in Marta's Vineyard, to create "workforce housing" and if that doesn't work out - if the incentives don't materialize and the large corporate businesses don't locate on the peninsula, the workforce housing will make great Airbnbs.

But Martha's Vineyard is not the Boothbay Penisula with two of its main water supplies designated as "endangered by further development" in 2015. Taking in environmental sustainability considerations, the plans brazenly hinted at by Watson and Yale are not practical ideas. A practical idea begins with acknowledging the limitations imposed by environmental sustainability.

Adams Pond and Knickerbocker Lake currently meet state water quality standards, but both are listed on Chapter 502 of the Maine Stormwater Law as “Most at Risk from New Development” and on Maine’s NPS Priority Watersheds List. Adams Pond and Knickerbocker Lake Water Shed Protection Plan published 2015

The incentives that private developers and politicians keep bringing into the dialogue make the comparison the Chinese Ghost City economic development plan complete-"Build grid housing for the workforces, more desirable housing for the executives and fancy public places and then subsidize targeted sector businesses and they will come"

But why? To increase the density of the population on a Peninsula with fragile water supplies? To squeeze more dollars per square foot out of the land for real estate owners and developers? To make the Boothbay Peninsula just like Martha's Vineyard?

In Lewis Mumford's, the Culture of the Cities he makes the point that in the 17th city, the capital city was grown at the expense of everywhere else:

The state grew at the expense of the component parts: the capital city grew out of all proportion to the provincial cities, and in no small measure at their expense. Though natural capitals were usually situated at points of special advantage for trade and military defense-these being elements that entered originally into their selection-the baroque rulers brought all the powers of the state to bear to confirm these advantages. Where a natural center was lacking, they imitated at a distance Peter the Great’s colossal willfulness in the founding of St. Petersburg. Lewis Mumdord- the Culture of the Cities

The plans of the dominant developers and community leaders of the Boothbay Peninsula seem to envision the peninsula growing out of proportion to the entire region, The school under the proposal would be better situated where it could draw on a wider area - in a community that already has a younger demographic. Furthermore, the peninsula's water supplies cannot sustain the level of population density that the new school would require to justify its existence. The peninsula needs a different kind of development. We do not need to rush into a fifty-sixty million dollar school system with no clear plan on how it will be funded. We need to expand the conversation to include other ideas for how the peninsula can develop in an environmentally sustainable and culturally consistent way, situated in a larger interactive region.

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Boothbay, ME
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