To the editor:
Development in Damariscotta has been a hot topic these past few months. In the pages of this newspaper, in multiple public meetings and hearings, on social media, and in coffee shop conversations. Everyone has an opinion. Unfortunately, not everyone has the facts.
The petition for a moratorium on development breathlessly proclaims that “Damariscotta is suddenly under threat” and that “retail development could pose serious threats to public health …” Anti-growth proponents have publicly fretted about the loss of “old-growth trees.” The statement was made at one meeting that “our way of life could disappear.” To be fair, some of those who favor growth have tried to frame the argument as one of “natives” against “newcomers” or of “trust-fund elites” against “working-class people.” None of these things is true.
Let’s assume that we all love our town, no matter how long we have lived here, or what our education or income level is. That’s why we live here. Let’s look at the facts.
Begin with the fact that Damariscotta (and to a much lesser degree Newcastle) is unique to this area in that Damariscotta is the service center town for the region. No other town on the peninsula supports a downtown of any real size. No other town on this peninsula has a central business district. No other town has miles of sidewalks or a public parking lot to maintain. No other town has a police force. No other town has as much firefighting equipment as Damariscotta needs for our downtown structures. True, Bristol supports a public beach, but when Damariscotta residents go there, they pay a fee to enter. Same at the Pemaquid lighthouse.
Everyone from the peninsula uses downtown Damariscotta and its central business district. But only the taxpayers of Damariscotta pay to support it. Damariscotta and Newcastle have the highest mil rates on the peninsula. By a lot. The Twin Villages both run mil rates that are usually around $17. Or higher. By contrast, Bristol has a mil rate of around $7. Nobleboro and Bremen are higher at around $10 and $11 (the state website has figures from 2015). South Bristol is only $4!
Damariscotta also has a higher amount of tax-exempt property than any other town. Some of the tax-exempt properties in Damariscotta include the hospital; the many holdings of the Damariscotta River Association, including Round Top Farm and their headquarters on Belvedere Road; Skidompha Library; Mobius; the Masonic hall; the YMCA; the Legion post; Great Salt Bay Community School, Lincoln Theater; and many churches.
These are all really good things that add to the fabric of life in our community. I, for one, am glad they are here. But again, while everyone enjoys them, only the taxpayers of Damariscotta pay for their property taxes.
In addition, the taxpayers of Damariscotta have consistently voted for a school budget that makes the consolidated school district that we belong to one of the better systems in this part of the state. Again, this is a very good thing. But it all needs to be paid for.
The only way to take that burden off of single-family homes is to expand our tax base with a robust commercial district. While it would be nice if that could be accomplished by small craft shops such as a seasonal bread store, the fact is that it takes bigger establishments to do that.
Newcastle has chosen to deal with this by allowing development along Route 1. They have a large warehouse complex, multiple storage facilities, an auto dealership, several auto repair shops, and retail stores. In town they allow food trucks and carts that produce little to no tax revenue and they took seven years to permit a small condo complex that is of exactly the design preferred by the group protesting development in Damariscotta. Damariscotta chose, in our comprehensive plan which was passed overwhelmingly by the voters in 2014, to preserve the beauty of our section of Route 1 and instead develop along Main Street, aka Business Route 1. There is no group of Damariscotta residents protesting Newcastle’s choice.
We are told by the anti-growth group that chain stores will not survive and we’ll soon be left with a blighted landscape of empty buildings. This ignores the fact that the proposed development will be surrounded by a chain supermarket, a chain-affiliated hardware store, a chain auto parts store, a chain coffee shop, a chain drugstore, two chain lumberyards, a chain fast-food restaurant, a chain glass store, and several chain tire stores. All of which appear to be thriving. Apparently people on this peninsula have no aversion to shopping in chain stores.
Finally, we are told that the proposed development will only lower our taxes by about $60 per household. This is a questionable number that seems to have come out of thin air. The fact is, the tax rate is cumulative. Just as no one parcel becoming tax-exempt moves the rate hugely, no single new development will lower our rate very much.
Just in the time this issue has been debated, the DRA has removed another large waterfront parcel from the tax rolls and Inn Along the Way will shortly be removing the former Chapman Farm from the tax base. Ironically, the only nonprofit in town that is building and will pay taxes, Stepping Stone Housing for battered women and other poor folks in transition, is also being opposed by members of the anti-growth group. This moratorium appears designed to stop not one project, but rather to tell all developers that Damariscotta is not business-friendly. The authors, who do not live in our town, have consistently opposed every project that has come to town. It’s reasonable to assume they will oppose the next project, too.
I urge everyone to take a deep breath, study the facts, and not listen to the hyperbole. An anti-growth moratorium is not something that will be beneficial for our town and could hurt us for a long time to come.