Between 2000 and 2004, according to a recent study by Coastal Enterprises, Inc., land values in a sample of 25 coastal and island communities increased by an average of 58 percent. The rise (in two of the towns surveyed it was over 100 percent) is caused by an apparently insatiable market for waterfront property, a market that is national or even global in scale. As long as Maine’s constitution requires property be assessed at fair market value based on recent sales, and at its “highest and best use,” there’s not a whole lot the individual property owner can do but complain, hope the mill rate goes down, pay his taxes, or sell out and move to some less-pricey place.

For coastal communities and the people in them who depend on access to the shore to earn a living, the implications of this seeming real estate windfall are huge. Access to the shore – be it a house lot on a beach, a house with a pier or a place to build one, a wharf used by fishermen or a larger piece of commercial waterfront real estate such as a boatyard – is so expensive these days that the buyer of moderate means is excluded. Today’s pier with a fish house (there were once hundreds of them on this coast) is tomorrow’s waterfront summer cottage, guest house or worse, and the local fishermen who’ve used it are obliged to land their catches somewhere else.

Nearly two-thirds of the towns surveyed for the CEI study (64 percent) reported having an access problem in 2002; a similar number reported their access was “in jeopardy.” Half of them lost further access in 2003, and the trend continues. Maine was believed to have less than 25 miles of actual “working waterfront” as recently as a decade ago. Today, tragically, the number is smaller and still shrinking.