Atlantic Cities

Can One of Maine's Emptiest Counties Become an Urbanist Paradise?

Can One of Maine's Emptiest Counties Become an Urbanist Paradise?

There’s not much in Piscataquis County, Maine – at least not much that’s human (there are plenty of trees and lots of moose). With just 17,535 residents, it’s one of the most sparsely populated counties east of the Mississippi, with fewer than six inhabitants per square mile.

Which makes it a perfect setting for a densely settled car-free village. At least, that’s what Tracy Gayton thinks.

He is the force behind the Piscataquis Village Project, a proposal to build a 125-acre village that would look something like an old-style European town, with narrow streets, small storefronts, pleasant public plazas – and no cars within the residential zone.

Gayton has lived in Maine since the early 1980s, when he came to the state from Florida to try his hand at homesteading. Like many "back-to-the-landers" of the period, he didn’t last long tilling the rocky soil. But he stayed on in the state, getting a job at the Bangor Savings Bank in Dover-Foxcroft - which, with a population of 4,211, is the largest town in Piscataquis County.

After taking early retirement a couple of years ago, Gayton started traveling, and the places he saw in Europe and Latin America inspired him.

"I was always kind of appalled at the waste of how we’ve chosen to build our towns and cities,” Gayton told me via Skype from Mexico, where he’s spending part of the winter. The old-fashioned towns and villages he saw overseas convinced him there was another way. “I realized, these places not only work as well as the places I’m accustomed to -- they actually work better.”

One of the designs Gayton would like to incorporate are small, narrow streets. This image is via the Piscataquis Village Project Facebook page.

And so an extremely unlikely dream was born. Gayton is looking to get interested investors to pledge $2 million to get the project off the ground, in increments as small as $10,000. That amount will get you a building lot, some space in the project’s "agricultural zone," and a parking spot at the perimeter. No architectural style would be imposed, although the building codes would be very different from most in Maine. From the project’s Facebook page:

In place of building ordinances, typical of most Maine towns, which require setbacks from the edges of the lot, would be "zero-lot line" ordinances making for connected buildings with common walls that front directly on the sidewalk. Streets would be narrower and human scaled. Buildings would have a 4 story height limitation and be constructed in such a way as to create arcaded, covered sidewalks. Small squares or plazas would be set through the development, which would become neighborhood centers and meeting places.

Ordinances typical of Maine towns requiring car parking spaces for businesses and residences would not be required, and commercial space on the ground floor of residences would be allowed and encouraged.

Gayton says he’s got $280,000 in commitments so far from 24 families, and he’s really just getting started. He hasn’t found a site yet, but then, there’s no shortage of land in that part of Maine.

A shot of the county now, via Flickr user BCNH09

But is this anything more than a quixotic dream? Gayton, whose optimism came through loud and clear on the call, insists that it can happen. “I think it’s doable, otherwise I wouldn’t be doing it,” he said. “Anyone who thinks I’m a utopian should get out more. This is the way we’ve been building cities for the last 6,000 years, until the last 100 years.”

And while Piscataquis County might seem like the least likely place possible for the project, Gayton points out a few distinct advantages: the low cost of land, the need for economic development, and, paradoxically, the sparseness of settlement.

"If there’s anywhere you’d be able to get around NIMBYism, this is it," he said. "In Piscataquis County, a backyard is 125 acres."

Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn. All posts »

Join the Discussion