Even by rural Maine standards, North Yarmouth is a small town, with barely 4,000 residents.

But despite that, some in town think it’s been growing too fast in recent years, and they want to “tap the brakes” on further development.

Town voters will go to the polls Tuesday to consider a referendum question that would limit the number of building permits the town can issue to 15 a year in the Village Center and Village Residential districts. North Yarmouth already has a cap of 15 permits in the Farm and Forest District, the third and largest zoning district in town, meaning there would be a limit of 30 permits a year townwide if the referendum passes.

The vote puts North Yarmouth in the position of having to face two contradictory issues that many Maine towns soon may have to confront: a long-running concern over growth and how to control it, along with a more recent housing crunch that makes it hard for many Mainers to find, and afford, a place to live.

The lack of a cap on permits in two of North Yarmouth’s districts “has resulted in residential growth well beyond expectations,” said Rich Parenteau, one of the leaders of the referendum drive.

Without a cap, he said, growth has picked up, with 125 permits issued in the past three years. Between 2008 and 2018, the town averaged just 16 permits a year.


Parenteau said town officials had hoped that the absence of a cap in the two village districts would lead to more commercial development in the center of town, but that effort “has been a failure,” while developers have scooped up the permits to build pricey homes.

A roadside sign near the village center in North Yarmouth supporting a proposed cap on building permits in the town. Residents will vote on the proposal Tuesday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer


That lack of commercial growth means that taxes and increased costs will fall mostly on residents, he said. New homes will likely bring children who will need to be educated in the school district that North Yarmouth shares with neighboring Cumberland. Parenteau told attendees of a public meeting about the referendum last week that a $400,000 home brings the town about $6,840 a year in property taxes, while the local share of school costs is nearly $14,000 a student per year.

Multiply that difference by 50 or more children, he said, and local taxes will have to go up significantly. He also pointed out that more residents also means increased costs for greater police and fire protection and other town services.

But opponents of the cap proposal think it goes too far, especially at a time when Maine is wrestling with a housing shortage.

Limiting building permits to 30 a year would be “the most restrictive building cap in the state and makes North Yarmouth very exclusionary and exclusive,” said Jeff Candura, a leading opponent of the measure.


He said capping permits would lead developers to build only larger and more expensive homes, driving up housing values throughout town and further limiting who can afford to live there. Land costs for home construction can be expensive in North Yarmouth. Existing zoning rules require lots of 3 or 4 acres per home in the farm and forest districts, while those in the village zones generally require an acre and can be as small as a half-acre under certain circumstances.

Candura and others also have been critical of having the issue dealt with via a referendum, rather than at planning and select board meetings and North Yarmouth’s annual town meeting.

He said the referendum means a compressed time for debate – the petitions to put the measure on the ballot were approved in November and only one public meeting has been held. And besides, “a yes-or-no referendum” cuts off the possibility of nuanced discussion and perhaps modifications that would make the proposal more palatable to a wider range of residents.

“The people (who put it on the ballot) think they’re doing something good for the town and they followed the rules,” Candura said. “It’s not how I would have chosen to do it.”

A roadside sign near the village center in North Yarmouth opposing a proposed cap on building permits in the town. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer


But Lincoln Merrill, one of the referendum’s organizers, said town leaders were approached about the idea last year, but they seemed more focused on their effort to hire a new town manager, who just started on the job in January.


And, he said, a referendum “is a more representative response from the residents” than the town meeting, where attendance is uneven. Merrill said the number of ballots cast at the town meeting has varied from 60 in 2017 to 120 in 2020, a small fraction of the nearly 3,700 registered voters in town.

Still, even with the unfamiliar prospect of making a trip to the polls in March, the issue has stirred the town.

Select Board Chairman Brian Sites cautioned residents at last week’s public meeting to be respectful of each other, but one resident pushed back a bit, saying it was hard to heed a call for calm over such an essential question.

“This should be emotional; this is where we live,” said Amy Haile, who opposes the permit limit.

Nelson Smith agreed with her, saying town building limits mean higher prices, which means North Yarmouth “discriminate(s) against poor people.”

“We need senior citizen housing, and this isn’t going to do anything for it,” Smith said.


An arbitrary cap isn’t a good substitute for proper, thoughtful planning, he added.

“Neither one of these – a yes vote or a no vote – will do anything,” Smith said. “We need a plan.”

A development site off Gray Road in North Yarmouth. Town Select Board Chairman Brian Sites said a recent uptick in high-end housing projects has been unsettling for residents. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer


The debate has prompted yard signs, normally a feature of statewide elections in June or November, to sprout out of the late spring snow in North Yarmouth.

Both sides argue in the signs that their position would “stop the sprawl,” and the public hearing included a discussion of just what constitutes “sprawl.” That debate ended without a resolution.

Sites said referendum votes on local issues are rare in the town, and he admitted that the select board was in no position to take up the matter last year because the search for a new town manager occupied most of its time in 2021.

He declined to take a position on the referendum, but Sites said rising home prices are probably behind at least some of the worry about growth. Home prices throughout the state rose by nearly 17 percent last year as the pandemic drew out-of-state buyers looking for a simpler lifestyle in small towns like North Yarmouth.

That’s what has driven some of the recent growth spurt for home-building in his town, Sites said, and it’s natural that it would be unsettling to a small, tight-knit community.

“Change is always hard,” Sites said. “It’s about how you manage it, and that’s what this referendum is about.”

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