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April 2, 2012 | last updated April 2, 2012 8:18 am

A novel development concept gathers steam in Piscataquis County

Photo/Courtesy Tracy Gayton
Photo/Courtesy Tracy Gayton
Tracy Gayton sits in the main plaza of Oaxaca, Mexico, a city that served as the inspiration for his proposed Piscataquis Village project, a walkable community with public plazas

Tracy Gayton came to Maine, appropriately enough, on foot, as a 25-year-old through-hiker on the Appalachian Trail. When his hike was over, he embraced the "back to the land" movement and bought 20 acres for a homestead in the woods.

"Then I ran out of money, got a job at Bangor Savings Bank in Dover-Foxcroft, and met a woman," he recalls. To his surprise, he found that living in a small town suited him better than living alone in the woods. For the first time, he says, "I experienced the luxury of being able to walk to work, meeting my neighbors on my way. It was just the greatest luxury and convenience."

If luxuries are defined in part by their rarity, Gayton may be right. Being able to experience one's community on foot is increasingly rare in Maine, and particularly so in Piscataquis County, the state's most sparsely populated county.

Gayton wants to change that. Now retired, he's promoting his vision for a unique new community in Piscataquis County: one that exiles automobiles out to the fringes (where they'd rarely be used), encourages high-quality architectural design, replaces backyards with courtyards and public plazas, and puts thousands of residents all within a 10-minute walk from one another.

It's a vision inspired by older cities and neighborhoods that Gayton has visited throughout the world in his retirement — places like Old Quebec, or Beacon Hill in Boston, or Venice or the hutongs of Beijing. Though it's radically different from anything that currently exists in Maine, Gayton points out that this is how humans have built towns and cities for centuries, and that some of the world's best-loved neighborhoods possess the characteristics he hopes to emulate in his proposed Piscataquis Village.

"We realize a project like this, a high density, compact village, isn't for everybody," says Gayton. "But there's a minority it does appeal to. If you want to live in small town, there's plenty of places you can; if you want to live in the woods, no problem. But what we're talking about — a tight-knit, car-free village — isn't an option. It's actually illegal under current regulations.

"If there were no market demand, who would care? But there is market demand," he adds.

Gayton can confidently say this because he's already recruited dozens of potential residents willing to put up a $10,000 pledge, contingent on the project's ability to raise $2 million to move forward with the first phase of development.

The project still doesn't have a site, and there are no plans beyond Gayton's proposed urban design guidelines. Gayton doesn't have the financial resources of a major developer, and beyond the pledges he's collecting, the project doesn't have any institutional financial backing.

The project's main asset, at this point, is Gayton's enthusiasm, optimism and charisma. In mid-March, he had received 25 pledges adding up to $300,000 in commitments.

"I would rather raise the money this way. I had never heard the term 'crowdfunding' until we started doing it...but it seems clear to me from the interest we've had so far that, if we can get 200 people and $2 million, there's plenty of resources that will come to us and assist us to get us the rest of the way," he says. "Fairly prestigious people are becoming interested."

Indeed, Gayton's list of contingent investors — the potential residents who have agreed to make $10,000 pledges if the project accumulates sufficient interest — reads like a who's who of Piscataquis County civic and business leaders.

One of these investors is John Simko, currently the director of business development for Pepin Associates, a composites manufacturer based in Greenville.

But Simko's name is more well-known from his tenure as the town manager of Greenville, a position in which he became a vocal advocate for Plum Creek's conceptual development plan for the Moosehead Lake region.

Most Mainers can recall that in 2005, at the height of the real estate bubble, Plum Creek, a major publicly-traded Real Estate Investment Trust, put forward a conceptual plan to build nearly 1,000 houses, two large resorts, and associated commercial developments on its lands in the vicinity of Moosehead Lake. In mid-March, the proposal cleared a legal hurdle when the Maine Supreme Judicial Court upheld the state's 2009 approval of the project.

The Plum Creek proposal and the Piscataquis Village project share a similar scale of ambition, and a similar potential to transform Maine's most sparsely-populated county.

But that's where the similarities end. The Plum Creek proposal is primarily geared toward wealthy second-home buyers and tourists, with a sprawl of large-lot subdivisions spread across thousands of acres.

The Piscataquis Village project, on the other hand, is geared toward permanent residents, and proposes to fit its thousands of new homes on an incredibly small footprint: about 150 acres, or the size of a single golf course.

Simko was born and raised in Piscataquis County, but he spent a few years living in Washington, D.C., after college. "I had never lived in a city before, or lived without a vehicle, but I managed to get by just fine. I found that over the two years I was there I was in tremendously better shape and felt really great. I could find whatever I needed by my own power.

"That seems to be the inverse of what we have here in rural Piscataquis County. I love this place, it's my home and there's lots you can do here that you can't do in any city. But it came in stark relief, coming back home. I was seen as this freak for riding my bike.

"I'm middle-aged now, but I can't help but think if people were able to walk more in our community — I don't want to suggest we should force people to, but if it were an option, I think they would be happier and healthier."

Simko is still a strong supporter of the Plum Creek project. As a native of Greenville, he's clearly worried about his community's ability to sustain itself with a declining population, and he welcomes any kind of new economic activity.

"Fewer people makes it harder to do things," he says. "For instance, we're down to 248 kids in our K-12 schools...we can't field a softball team anymore. You're going to get to the point where the school itself is not financially feasible. So the things that you value in your community get harder and harder to maintain."

Gayton's pitch for the Piscataquis Village doesn't shy away from the sobering demographic statistics that Simko and other civic leaders in the region are worried about. Census data indicates a rapidly aging population and an aging stock of energy-inefficient housing that is ill-suited to the county's increasing numbers of empty-nest and single-member households.

But the Piscataquis Village project's supporters see these challenges as opportunities as well. "We see the so-called McMansions going up on shorelines and ridgelines, but we don't see a lot of development for replacement of housing stock for your middle-income and low-income people," says Simko. By replacing old, oversized, isolated and inefficient homes with smaller, more efficient homes in a connected, walkable community, the project's supporters hope that they can help more families stay in Piscataquis County, while also attracting new residents from elsewhere.

Janet Sawyer, the business development director for Piscataquis County's Economic Development Council, agrees. The county's demographic challenges are "something we talk about all the time," she says. "How do we attract young, innovative people, particularly those aged 25 to 34, the age when people are more likely to take entrepreneurial risks?"

Although Sawyer has lived her entire life in rural Maine, she has also signed up to be one of the Village's contingent investors. "The people drawn to what he's proposing would be people attracted to sustainable ecological living. It plays into economic development."

Over the winter, the project received a flurry of attention on several prominent design and urbanism blogs. Gayton primarily relies on word-of-mouth marketing; the Village still doesn't have a website, although it does have a Facebook page and an extensive online slide presentation that describes the project and its motives. Major architects and urban designers are beginning to take notice, and new pledges continue to trickle in toward the $2 million fundraising goal for the project's first phase.

Two million dollars isn't a lot of money in real estate development. But Gayton points out that his project's unique design and location offers a lot of savings opportunities compared to a traditional development.

A survey of real estate case studies by Canadian economist Todd Litman, of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, found that compact development "typically provides direct savings in publicly-borne development costs (roadways and utility lines) ranging from $5,000 to as much as $75,000 per unit, compared to the same quality of infrastructure provided to dispersed development."

Gayton has done his own back-of-the-envelope calculations. "You can get land for $1,000 an acre in Piscataquis County," he says. "So let's say half a million for the land, half million for permitting, soils analysis, and engineering, and $1 million for phase one infrastructure: streets, wastewater, drinking water. We'll be building out 35 to 50 building lots per acre. We'll have narrower streets, fewer pipes.

"We have this tradition in New England of Yankee frugality, but if you look at the way we've been building things the last 50 years or so, we overbuild a lot of infrastructure."

Gayton cheerfully admits that his calculations, like the development concept itself, are very preliminary in nature.

"A little naivet helps in this project — as long as you have a good idea and a structure, we cheerfully admit we haven't figured everything out. It leaves us open to whatever opportunities might come along."

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