Out with the young, in with the old: Harpswell adjusts to an aging population

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Harpswell adjusts to an aging population

HARPSWELL — Residents don’t need the U.S. Census to remind them that they’re getting older and that the trend has an impact on town services.

From closing an elementary school to a proposal to privatize emergency medical services to a rezoning plan designed to attract young families to town, the town’s aging population influenced major decisions in 2011.

But the population data is useful to show just how much older Harpswell is now than ever before. In 2010, the median age of residents was 52.9. That’s up from 45.2 in 2000 – a nearly 15 percent increase.

At the same time, the population is decreasing: it has dropped nearly 10 percent since 2000, from 5,239 to 4,470.

In particular, it’s Harpswell’s young and middle-aged segments that are down the most. The percentage of adults between ages 20 and 59 decreased nearly 19 percent since 2000, while those over 60 increased more than 25 percent.

The impact of this particular change is evident with Harpswell’s cadre of volunteer firefighters and emergency medical technicians.

Many of the volunteers are growing older, along with the rest of the population, and the town is having a hard time finding replacements. Less than a quarter of the population falls in the prime 18-to-44 age bracket for fire and rescue volunteers.

An aging population is also part of the reason why Harpswell’s emergency medical calls have jumped 25 percent from 2000 to 2010, according to data provided by Town Administrator Kristi Eiane.

Demand for emergency volunteers is rising everywhere – not just in aging communities – as people increasingly call 911 for non-emergencies. And volunteerism is also declining because of the lengthy training now required to become a basic EMT, among other factors.

As a result of these changes, Harpswell voters will decide at the annual Town Meeting in March if they want to spend at least $123,000 annually for a paramedic from MidCoast Hospital to cover the daytime hours, when most volunteers are at work.

School closing

While the need for improved medical services can be attributed both to the decline of the younger population and increase in the elderly, the closing of West Harpswell School is primarily a result of the former.

Harpswell’s elementary school population has dropped by nearly 40 percent since 2000. According to the 2010 Census, there are only 338 children 9 or under in town, compared with 527 a decade earlier.

School enrollment numbers paint a nearly identical picture. Harpswell’s two elementary schools had a combined student population of 267 in the 2002-2003 academic year. Over the course of nine years, enrollment declined by more than 100 students – about 40 percent – to just 160 this year at Harpswell Community School.

The loss of elementary school students was one of the factors, besides costs, behind a vote by School Administrative District 75 to close West Harpswell School.

Former SAD 75 Superintendent Michael Wilhelm said in March 2010 that declining enrollment meant it just didn’t make sense, from an administrative perspective, to keep the school open.

If population suddenly increased, “then perhaps (the district) would consider keeping (WHS) open,” he said. “But I don’t see that baby boom happening.”

Rezoning West Harpswell

A more subtle indicator of Harpswell’s aging population came earlier this month, when the Comprehensive Plan Implementation Committee proposed rezoning a section of West Harpswell to allow increased density in developments and subdivisions.

The proposal will likely be tweaked, because of opposition it received at a recent public hearing.

But while the committee gave many reasons for suggesting the change, including controlling sprawl and protecting the town’s more rural areas, part of the goal is to attract more young people to town by allowing construction of less expensive and multi-family homes on smaller lots.

David Chipman, a CPIC member, said the recent pattern of development in Harpswell – construction of large, expensive homes on big lots – is one of the main reasons younger people have not only left Harpswell, but have been unable to move in.

‘It tends to feed itself’

The population shift is a growing cause of concern for many people in town.

“The one unfortunate aspect of it is, it tends to feed itself,” said Elinor Multer, chairwoman of the Board of Selectmen. She said she believes current circumstances will only accelerate the departure of young residents.

Chipman echoed Multer. He said that because the elderly have a greater demand for services, they tend to drive up property taxes, making it even more more unaffordable for young families to stay or move into town.

Indeed, Multer warned residents at a Dec. 7 Board of Selectman meeting to expect a tax increase if they vote to partially privatize the town’s emergency medical services.

The closure of West Harpswell School is another Catch-22.

“One of the things that any community can offer its citizens is a small school, close by, for its children, and that is now not a possibility for people on this side of Harpswell,” said Joe Grady, who lives and operates Two Coves Farm on Harpswell Neck with his wife and two small children.

Reversing the trend?

Residents expressed little hope that government efforts can reverse the demographic trends. But there are a few suggestions for attracting young people, and keeping the ones already in town.

Selectman Alison Hawkes, the only member of the board of selectmen under 40, said if more young people served in town government, officials would be more in tune with their needs.

“The perspective in our town has always been older because our representation is older,” Hawkes said. “They don’t understand being young (and) raising a family in Harpswell.”

Sam Alexander, whose family has called Harpswell home for generations, said the town could provide more incentives for job creation.

He also suggested that the local food movement might be able to draw more young people back to rural areas – something that already succeeded in bringing the Grady family to Harpswell nearly three years ago.

Grady said Harpswell’s demographics actually work in favor of small farmers who have a tough time competing with grocery store prices. He said he has found that retirees and summer residents can afford to buy his natural beef, eggs and poultry.

“The waterfront second homes can play a role, whether it’s tourism or buying a product,” he said.

But Grady said getting people back to the land is a challenge because of Harpswell’s high land prices, and he thinks creative partnerships between land trusts, landowners and farmers will be needed to get young farmers to move to town.

According to Trulia.com, a real estate search service, the average listing price for residential property in Harpswell for the week ending Dec. 21 was just over $677,000 – the highest in Cumberland County. Bailey Island, because of its separate zip code, was second at just over $663,000.

Some people hope redevelopment of Mitchell Field will be a way to lure younger people to town, by creating jobs and affordable housing.

Eiane, the town administrator, said assisting in the development of low-cost housing on town land is one way the town can attract and retain young people.

“I do think that would be a role for government,” she said.

But to do so, Harpswell residents would have to spend money. And in 2009 they were unwilling to do so, when they rejected spending $50,000 for the Hamilton Place workforce housing project.

For some, Harpswell’s demographic trends reflect more than a school closing, or a proposal to hire a paramedic – they represent a change in the fundamental character of the town.

“My sense is that this is a community that’s really having some sort of identity crisis,” Grady said. “Where do they go from here?”

Emily Guerin can be reached at 781-3661 ext.123 or eguerin@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @guerinemily.

Sidebar Elements

Ashley Braley of Harpswell takes a ballot from poll volunteer Gertrude Knight at Merriconeag Grange during a Feb. 1 special election where voters decided to close West Harpswell School. The school closing was due, in part, to a decline in the number of elementary school-age children in town.