The Universal Notebook: The suburbs creep into the sandpit

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For all of the 32 years that we lived in Yarmouth, we enjoyed the fact that our little neighborhood of Capes and ranches bordered a 30-acre wood with a sandpit.

This little undeveloped vestige of forest, sand and gravel was a wonderful playground for children and dogs. The idea that 26 expensive houses might one day be built there would never have occurred to me.

A couple of weeks ago on my way out Sligo Road I turned into the paved road that now snakes through the sandpit where we used to walk our dogs and take our kids sliding. Where once we picked our way along a footpath of exposed roots, fallen trees and boggy spots there is a wide ribbon of tar so smooth, twisting and undulating that I was amazed it hasn’t yet been commandeered by skater kids.

A Jersey barrier at the far end of the development temporarily blocks access to our old neighborhood, but it is just a matter of time before this new subdivision connects up with the 1950s subdivision we once called home. The creep of the suburbs is inexorable and unfortunate, but this is the way we want to live. Large single-family homes on large lots push the suburbs ever outward into the open spaces that once defined our cities and towns.

We have known at least since the 2006 “Charting Maine’s Future” report by the Brookings Institution that Maine is rapidly suburbanizing. “In 1960,” the report noted, “only five towns, containing 121,000 people or 12.5 percent of the state’s population, lay within a metropolitan area. Today, more than 860,000 Mainers – over 65 percent of the state’s population – reside in the 164 towns that comprise Maine’s metropolitan and micropolitan areas.”

In other words, just about everything south of Bangor between Interstate 95 and the coast is technically suburb. It won’t be long at this rate before Cumberland and York counties resemble the sprawling suburbs of Boston, one indistinguishable town flowing seamlessly into the next.

I find it hard to believe that people will pay $500,000-$800,000 to live in a sandpit, but space is at a premium in Yarmouth and families want to live there. Yarmouth is about half the size by area of most surrounding towns, owing to the split with North Yarmouth back in 1849. Proximity to Portland, an intact village center, and one of the best school systems in the state conspire to create residential development pressures such that every undeveloped plot of land becomes fair game.

As I left the sandpit subdivision and crossed the railroad tracks on Sligo Road I noticed another road leading into woodlands I once naively thought would never be developed. Another fine home was under construction where deer once yarded and coyotes yipped and howled.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not feeling holier than thou. I’m just as guilty as the next guy. In fact, last weekend I displaced a bat the size of my hand who complained bitterly about the interruption of his diurnal sleep only to discover that I had destroyed his home, too.

Our shed at the lake was once the pottery shop of a Girl Scout camp. It had been standing in that pine grove since 1939, but it took me, a son-in-law and a brother-in-law just three hours to reduce it to rubble with sledge hammers and crowbars. The shed had become something of an eyesore and had outlived its usefulness, except to mice, chipmunks, squirrels and bats. This winter we will probably also have to have five teetering, 100-foot white pine trees removed because they threaten our camp with widow-makers and worse.

Our unheated camp still looks like the section of dining hall it once was, but many of the camps around us now are year-round homes. Thirty-five years ago, we drove more than 10 miles of dirt road on the way to the lake. Now, all but the last mile is paved. Mile after mile that was once uninhabited forest is one house after another.

It wasn’t all that long ago that folks on our private road balked at paying to have it plowed just so a handful of camp owners who liked to snowmobile could get to their camps in winter. Now there are people living permanently at the lake who commute to work in Portland and Lewiston. I imagine it’s only a matter of time before we have to start debating whether to pave the camp road.

Being a grumpy old man, I’ll vote no – not that it will do a bit of good.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

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