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Car-free in deep rural Maine?

Strung-Together Ideas Dept.
By SARA ANNE DONNELLY  |  July 25, 2012

About 140 miles north of Portland you'll find Dover-Foxcroft. With a population of 4200, it's the largest town in the state's most sparsely populated county. There are fewer than five people per square mile in Piscataquis County, and the woods here are thick. Driving is a way of life.

Tracy Gayton wants to change all that with what he calls " a medieval village without the bubonic plague."

Gayton, a retired bank manager from Dover-Foxcroft, thinks this most undeveloped of Maine counties is a great place to build a dense, car-free residential community with streets no wider than 20 feet. He's convinced the idea is so universally cool it won't run into much permitting resistance, even though it's designed to hold five times as many people as the residential piece of the controversial Plum Creek development.

At a fundraiser for Piscataquis Village at Peloton Labs in Portland last week, Gayton told a group of curious architects, activists, and planners that he intends to arrange 5000 house plots on just 125 acres of land surrounded by a rim of open space and, beyond, a parking lot. The Village would be a compact honeycomb of mixed-use townhouses no taller than four stories around central courtyards. Bikes and pedestrians would be welcome, but no standard-sized cars.

Piscataquis Village follows the popular new urbanism tenets of walkable, planned communities in the way of Florida's Seaside and Celebration, both of which allow cars. These successful settlements benefit, arguably, by being close to bustling cities. In the case of the Village, Gayton is confident that its novelty as a medieval-style development will entice settlers, even into the up-country.

Gayton's not a planner or a developer; he won't organize the construction of the Village other than the city infrastructure like water and sewer (plot owners can build when they choose); and his fundraising is slowed by frequent breaks to hang out in hammocks in Florida and Latin America. But what he lacks for in experience and certain initiative, he makes up for in optimism, showing the crowd photos of children kicking soccer balls down a narrow street in Sienna and grands-meres gathering with their bikes on a plaza in Bruges.

But Chia-Petting a town whose overseas models took centuries to mature involves some significant logistical challenges that Gayton has not yet addressed. He seemed surprised when the meeting's attendees pressed him on how he would convince the first few buyers to break ground; how he would encourage a local economy if the village would likely, as he says, be made up of second homes; and how he would in general keep Piscataquis Village from becoming, as landscape architect and attendee Seth Kimball put it, "a cult of people that just want to live these isolated lifestyles."

So far, Gayton has raised $370,000 in pledges from 32 households, 22 of which are in Maine. The commitments are non-binding "contingent investments." At the moment, Piscataquis Village appeals as a cool idea hatched over drinks with friends — which is, in fact, how it was hatched — and, while the dream impressed many present, it didn't convince anyone to pledge. For that, Gayton might have to spend more hammock time working out the details.

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  Topics: This Just In , Peloton Labs, car
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  •   CAR-FREE IN DEEP RURAL MAINE?  |  July 25, 2012
    About 140 miles north of Portland you'll find Dover-Foxcroft. With a population of 4200, it's the largest town in the state's most sparsely populated county.
    There was a moment during Saturday's raucous debut smackdown of the Superhero Lady Armwrestlers of Portland when it looked like the favorite, Voom Voom Valhalla, would certainly lose.

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