Town of Yarmouth: A Historic Community with Big Future Plans

The town of Yarmouth, Maine, located north of Portland, was formally part of North Yarmouth at the time when Maine was part of Massachusetts. Yarmouth split off in 1848 and was originally known for its shipbuilding industry. In addition to shipbuilding, Yarmouth also had many farms and, in 1800, a large paper mill was founded in the town. Over the years a number of other industries took hold in the small coastal town, including textiles, shoe cobbling and manufacturing.
In the1950s, Central Maine Power Co. founded a power plant on Cousins Island, which is a part of Yarmouth that expanded through the 1980s, affecting the nature of community. In more recent years the power plant is slowly phasing out, but is still a reminder of the town’s industrial prowess. The 1960s and 1970s brought Interstate 295, which also changed the community through growth and commuter activity. “Today, the town has emerged as a largely residential community with a central village core,” says Nathaniel “Nat” Tupper, Yarmouth’s town manager.
Tupper grew up about 15 miles away from Yarmouth and went to University of Maine where he got his Masters of Public Administration before going immediately into town management. “I came to Yarmouth in 1991 … after 10 years of experience in Maine and Vermont … when I succeeded Oz Bonzy, who had been here for 12 years. In my time here, I’ve worked with two school superintendents. So we have a tremendous amount of stability, especially in our educational services, politics and services,” Tupper explains.
Servicing the Citizens
With 8,400 citizens, “Yarmouth is a small town; it’s about 13 square miles, some of which is island, so it’s a relatively dense community around the core with natural wooded and farmland perimeter,” says Tupper. What Yarmouth does have is a generous sense of community, as well as a city government with a cohesive plan for maintenance and conscientious development.
“I would also say that while we have a council manager form of government, with the council assigned fiduciary responsibility, we are particularly lucky to have someone like Nat Tupper as the town manager,” says Steve Woods, a former Chairman of the Yarmouth Planning Board and current member of the Yarmouth Town Council. “He is not only effective in carrying out the direction from the council, but he is also a wealth of knowledge, insight and wisdom on all matters that relate to Yarmouth.”
Indeed, Tupper shows the Town of Yarmouth, a part of the winning Greater Portland and Casco Bay area, to be an example of balancing long-standing charm with long-term infrastructure upgrade plans.
“We’ve been blessed to maintain a community spirit; even through growth Yarmouth has maintained its identity,” he says. “And it’s envied by other towns, because we have little suburban sprawl. We’re also blessed to maintain good public services, particularly award-winning education.”
Yarmouth has two school systems of the highest quality: Yarmouth Public Schools and North Yarmouth Academy, which is grades five through 12. “That’s an old school; it existed before the town split from Massachusetts,” Tupper shares.
Woods, a family man with three children, has this to share: “I feel as though our school system is one of the core centers of excellence in Yarmouth. A strong school system has much more meaning in a community than just the academics. It also provides a connectivity for the whole community to support in terms of sports, events and school activities. I applaud Yarmouth for decisions made in the past that benefit us in the present and the future to that establish Yarmouth's school system as the strongest in the state.”
To ensure continued quality educations for its citizens, $19.5 million of the town’s total $30 million operating budget is set aside for the school department. The rest of the budget “is spread out,” Tupper explains. “We’re a full-service town unique in that the public sewer system is funded by property tax. We have an excellent library, highway maintenance, parks and recreation, fire department and police department.”
Yarmouth’s water is supplied by a separate district, “but it is excellent water and relatively cheap,” Tupper says. “In Maine, counties provide some services that in other states are done by towns. So justice and prisons are paid for in part by our property tax, but are provided by the county.”
And Yarmouth offers its citizens some select social services. “It’s a relatively affluent community, so there’s not a huge need for it. But that may be changing with more families beginning to struggle,” Tupper foresees.
Tupper also foresees the possibility of Amtrak and mass transit opportunities, like a bus systems, to become part of the public services available to its citizens. But those are several years off. For now, Tupper will focus on the services the town already has. “I have a staff of around 60 full-time employees doing public works, wastewater, landfill, highway, police, administration, fire, recreation and the library, and 250 employees for the school department,” says Tupper.
Yarmouth is also supported by a large group of volunteers. In the fire rescue department, the town has 100 volunteers and professionals to assist with training and general oversight. “A few years ago we were concerned, as most young people are working outside the community, but we hired professionals to support basics with the understanding they’re there to support the volunteers,” Tupper says. “We also have about 85 people volunteering on committees and including coaches and the PTA, it’s really hundreds of people volunteering.”
Combining Contracted Talent and In-house Strengths
Yarmouth’s town hall professionals handle all maintenance work and routine work in-house. And, as a small community, it uses contractors to assist with additional work.
When choosing these contractors, the town looks for “cost and capacity and ability to serve and meet our needs consistently. We don’t always want the lowest price if they won’t show up when we need them. A lot of business we put out is to local companies. We have folks we use on a regular basis,” Tupper says.
The contractors understand the importance of gaining the community’s approval. This approval is also part of the town’s construction permit process. For things like commercial office buildings, there is a local site review plan process done by a community review board. It would also go through the state for a site location permit.
“If a project comes forward and a developer has good experience in tailoring projects to the community’s preference, it’s not difficult to get through the process. For people with their own vision, who are not good listeners, they have bigger problems,” Tupper explains. “Developers who listen well, do well. We really encourage them and sit with them in advance to provide suggestions on how to go forward. Development is customized that comes in here. People who come and build here most successfully want to be part of the community; they work with neighbors and regulatory boards to fit in and enhance the community.”
The last time the town went through major construction was 2004. At that time the town invested $23 million for new school buildings. “We did that with a construction management firm. It was the first time we went from the low bid process to construction management process. But it was very successful,” Tupper remembers. “We had an active citizens group from town and the school department and people with construction backgrounds and they worked with a company that acted as general contractor and finished below budget. We’re very happy with the buildings.”
Making Plans for the Future
Since it has been several years since the school expansion was completed, Yarmouth has a couple upcoming projects. “While we don’t have anything immediately pending, we have a town garage, a public works facility, that needs a lot of attention and that will be a big project for us in the $5 million range. We will be ready to put that to voters within a year or two,” says Tupper. Additionally, “in 2001 we built an athletic facility with synthetic turf and its close to the end of the turf’s useful life. So we’ll have to go devote about half a million dollars to replace and rehabilitate that surface.”
Yarmouth also has a larger goal in mind: building on the local infrastructure. Yarmouth has two major highways that run through the center of town. One is the Interstate; it brings an influx of visitors to the area. The other highway is Route 1, which is marked with a commercial corridor. ”We’re very interested in developing the feel of that commercial area going forward. About 15 years ago we said we need to be careful, otherwise it will be a strip like every other one in the country,” Tupper shares. “We have big plans and just need the money to do construction, regulate commercial vendors, create safe pedestrian crossways and move the buildings close to the road to give them the community feel.”
Tupper’s overall goal is that the commercial area surrounding Route 1 “becomes an extension of the Yarmouth feel and village instead of a separate place. So in the next several years, if we can find money, we will spend several million dollars to change the infrastructure and regulatory practices to guide them and make that area feel like a real place to turn into and spend time at,” he says.
The challenge is figuring out how to implement that vision. “We’re still working on finances, but we have some solutions on how it should work,” says Tupper. “I think it would be very cool if the community could reinvent itself on Route 1. We really want to go up to Route 1 and infect it with the main street feel.”
While Yarmouth prefers the small town, traditional feel of its community, it also incorporates new-age technology to make the community more energy efficient and environmentally friendly. “We have not adopted LEED as a standard and haven’t asked people to do that, but most new development is guided by LEED values. People are much more aware of environmental concerns and energy savings,” Tupper explains. “When we build the new garage, it won’t necessarily be LEED certified, but it will be driven by environmental and energy issues as well as operation and safety. We also are spending a lot of time and money on retrofitting existing structures to be more environmentally friendly by replacing lights, heating systems and adding insulation.”
By updating its buildings and discussing projects to be completed in a couple years, Yarmouth is creating plans for the future. “We have a brand new plan in front of the town council for consideration. Its main goal is to maintain the current vision for a number of years, but it does include our vision for Route 1 and starts to put some specific recommendations and nomenclature to where we’ve been heading all along,” Tupper says.
Some of the new plan includes promoting housing diversity and density in the town’s center. This encourages a return to historic development patterns marked by houses closer together and closer to the road, on smaller lots. This structure will create more public spaces and protect the countryside to keep it as countryside. “One tool is to change to formed-base codes to focus more on developing the area instead of basing development on what’s going on inside the building. We’re a long way from being there, but I am intrigued,” Tupper says. “That’s the change I would hope for and try to get the community to understand. It will be difficult but will be a significant change.”
“In the future, our biggest opportunity will continue to be in the area of balancing local business growth, residential quality-of-life and community spirit,” Woods reinforces. “From what I know about Yarmouth I think that our future is very bright.”
It is easy to feel the passion and excitement citizens such as Tupper and Woods hold for the future of Yarmouth. And Tupper's ongoing work is well received by community members. “Yarmouth people really appreciate the quality of staff in the municipal government, especially schoolteachers and administration staff. They’re very supportive. I would say we all love being here, being part of this community. Being engaged in Yarmouth is quite rewarding,” Tupper says.