WESTBROOK — Officials here attribute recent population gains to expected things – housing affordablility and location – and to the unexpected: the way the city smells.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Westbrook was the second fasted growing municipality in Maine last year. Scarborough was third.
Westbrook City Administrator Jerre Bryant said his city’s growth might have to do with its scent, or lack thereof.
“In a way it reflects back to the ’90s when the pulping process was removed from the Sappi (Global) Mill,” he said.
Pulping, a modern paper-making process, is known for releasing odors into the air. Now, 20 years after the city’s paper mill halted the process, Bryant said the air has a more neutral smell and people are more inclined to move to Westbrook.
The city, which had a total population of 18,400 last year, saw a population increase of 364 from 2015-2016. Topping the census growth list was Orono, which had an increase of 521 residents. The third, fourth and fifth fastest growing Maine towns, respectively, were Scarborough, with 236 new residents, Gorham with 178, and Windham with 173.
The census based the ranking on the number of new residents in each city or town between July 1, 2015, and July 1, 2016.
Officials from the top five municipalities all said they made the list because of how “attractive” they are to residents. Relatively low tax rates and a strong sense of community play into that attractiveness, they said.
“When people move here they look at what the services are that they’ll get for their taxes,” Westbrook Mayor Mike Sanphy said.
Scarborough Town Manager Tom Hall said its been important to his Town Council to keep the tax rate as low as it can. It’s also a town with a large business community, where companies contribute heavily to the tax base.
Hall said 21 percent of the town’s taxes come from commercial and industrial businesses and that the town has a goal of increasing this to 25 percent. He said people move to Scarborough because of the many businesses, but not necessarily so they can work or shop at them.
“I suspect it’s more the tax rate than the convenience of living and working in the same town,” Hall said.
Windham recently conducted a study and found that the majority of its residents work in Portland, Windham Town Manager Tony Plante said.
“Depending on where you are in Windham, you’re in close proximity to Portland, but we’re far enough away that real estate is more affordable,” he said.
Some officials agreed with Plante and said less expensive housing is a driving factor behind population increases in their towns.
“Portland is expensive and people are pushed out for certain reasons,” Sanphy said.
Bryant attributed Westbrook’s growth to his belief that people can live in the city for less money and still enjoy the amenities of Portland.
“Given what real estate prices are in Portland and other communities, you can get much more house in Westbrook for the same dollar,” he said.
According to Trulia.com, the average cost of a home in Westbrook is $211,000, while in Portland it’s $357,000. Bryant said Westbrook also has more available land for housing because homes weren’t being built in the city 20 to 30 years ago.
“When the pressure came back up recently for residential demand, Westbrook had more opportunities because it wasn’t as full as Portland and South Portland,” Bryant said. “It created an availability of residentially zoned land.”
Hall said Scarborough also has the space available to build new houses.
“There’s still room for growth, unlike other communities that are built out,” he said. “In other communities there may be a big project that accounts for that growth, but Scarborough has had sustained growth.”
Gorham Town Manager David Cole also said growth is often the result of a development project. He said that to determine which municipality is growing the fastest, one should “look at whoever had the biggest subdivision in the past year.”
That rings true for Westbrook, where the Blue Spruce Farm development, being constructed by Scarborough-based Risbara Bros., is creating more than 300 units with a mix of apartments and single-family homes.
The subdivision, off Spring Street, has been the centerpiece of a community-wide fervor regarding growth and development, including calls for a development moratorium and changes to the city’s land use ordinance.
Bryant said the city and its long-time residents have definitely been impacted by the influx of new residents.
“Growth results in changes,” he said. “It impacts the character of the community in terms of demographics, but overall, growth is a good thing. It means people want to live in that community.”
Plante said many people want to move to Windham for “the relatively more country feel,” which ironically decreases the rural feel as the town grows.
“It comes with its challenges, but it’s people that make a community,” he said. “We need to find ways to manage growth so there’s as few adverse consequences as possible.”
For some municipalities with growing populations, the problem of overcrowding is most prevalent in its schools.
Westbrook is at the beginning of a major school expansion project, which will add dozens of classrooms and other space to the elementary and middle schools. A $27.3 million bond for the expansion project was approved by voters last Nov. 8.
“We are growing so you need to expand to meet the demand,” Sanphy said.
Westbrook Middle School, which is relatively new at seven years old, is considered over capacity by more than 100 students.
“Classes are filling fast because of the population growing, but overall they’re operating fine,” Sanphy said.
Cole said Gorham hasn’t experienced space issues in its schools, but it has experienced the need to keep up with demand for other town services.
“Growth is good, but it has its challenges,” he said. “But you try to keep your infrastructure in line with that growth.”
The other growing towns also aren’t seeing their schools significantly impacted. For Windham, that’s because smaller families have been moving to town, Plante said.
“While the population is growing, household sizes are shrinking so schools aren’t as impacted as you might think,” he said.
In Scarborough, Hall said many of the new residents are retired people seeking senior housing. While they don’t have children to add to the schools, their presence has actually posed a threat to funding for the town’s schools.
“There’s no question when folks are on a fixed income they don’t see the value in those services,” Hall said.
Seeing large population increases has proved challenging for some municipalities, but overall, officials welcome the newcomers. They’ve found that living in southern Maine, they don’t have a choice.
“I think southern Maine is a nice place to live and I think Gorham is a part of that,” Cole said. “I don’t think it matters whether we’re the fastest or the fourth fastest. I think all surrounding communities are growing rapidly.”
Of the towns in the top five, Scarborough, Gorham and Windham have had the most consistent growth over the past seven years. The number of new residents each year has been in the triple digits.
Westbrook’s growth, however, has been more erratic. Five years ago the population grew by 180 people, only to drop over the next few years. In 2015, 90 people moved to the city compared to the 364 who did last year.
“The challenge with growth is that it’s not perfectly metered out over the years,” Bryant said.
Overall, though, city and town officials said they’ll take growth however they can get it. They said not all Maine municipalities are so fortunate.
“There are some communities in Maine that are struggling,” Plante said. “On the whole it’s better to be growing than shrinking.”
According to recent U.S. Census data, Westbrook is the second fastest growing municipality in Maine, followed by Scarborough, Gorham, and Windham; Orono is the fastest.