DAMARISCOTTA, Maine — When dairy farmer David Chapman died five years ago at the age of 94, none of his heirs wanted to take over the rambling 19th century house, the three-story barn and milking parlor, the rolling fields and productive woodland where his family lived for nine generations.

Although the historic property is just a stone’s throw from busy Route 1 and surrounded by small businesses, the family also was unwilling to sell it for commercial development.

“My father-in-law had the chance to sell it once for over a million dollars,” said John Gallagher, 66, who is married to Chapman’s daughter. “It would have been flattened and turned into a big-box development, and no one was willing to see that happen.”

One family member moved in briefly to provide maintenance and general caretaking, but for the most part the old farm — in what may be the nation’s oldest community — sat empty while the family and the community fretted over its future.

But now, with the vision and support of local residents, a grass-roots nonprofit group has purchased the Chapman farm for $500,000 with funds raised over the past year from local donors. Plans are under way to develop the property into an innovative, affordable housing community for older adults and seniors.

Inn Along the Way is a registered 501(c)3 organization founded by a small group of area women with connections to local hospice and other end-of-life services. Board president Sherry Flint, 58, who lives in the village of Pemaquid, said the area needs more housing for aging residents. Existing options range from full-care nursing facilities to assisted living centers and subsidized housing, she said, but she envisions something different.

“We are not here to recreate what is already being done and done well,” she said. “We want to be the missing link.”

Flint’s vision for the project, while still in the free-form stage, includes several clusters — she calls them “pocket neighborhoods” — of small, residential cottages where independent older adults can live long-term, playing an active role in the community and aging safely in their homes with friends and neighbors looking in on them. She also sees a handful of short-term “respite cottages” for seniors who need intensive personal care; a separate inn for visiting families and the traveling public; a teahouse, cafe, gift shop and community center in the old farmhouse; an arts center in the old barn; extensive gardens for produce and flowers; and a network of public walking trails.

Key to the project’s mission is its commitment to attract and serve average-income, local residents. Sliding-scale rents in the residential cottages will help keep the community as affordable and inclusive as possible, Flint said, and more active, physically able residents will be able to further offset costs by working in the revenue-producing cafe, inn and arts center.

“And we know we’ll always have to do some fundraising,” she said. She’s confident local philanthropy, family donations and private foundation money will keep the project in the black.

Flint says she has visited many planned communities around the country, taking lessons and ideas away from each. Inn Along the Way is loosely modeled after the Brookwood Community, a faith-based residential community in Texas for developmentally delayed adults that includes staffed residences, on-site employment opportunities and public attractions such as a high-end cafe, shops, gardens and an elegant wedding venue to attract visitors and their checkbooks.

Many of Inn Along the Way’s supporters are affiliated with religious and spiritual traditions, Flint said, but the project itself is not.

“Though the seeds of Inn Along the Way were certainly sown through my faith — love of God walked out through love of ‘neighbor’ — we are indeed an ecumenical group,” Flint said. “My hope is that we will be a safe place from the storms and a refuge for people to come and rest their weary spirits.”

The oldest town, the oldest county, the oldest state in the nation

As the baby boomer generation approaches retirement and old age, communities across the country are looking for ways to support the social concept known as “aging in place,” defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as “the ability to live in one’s own home and community safely, independently, and comfortably, regardless of age, income, or ability level.”

According to 2010 U.S. Census data, Maine boasts the oldest population of all the states, with a median age of 42.7 years compared to the national median of 37.2 years. In Lincoln County, the median age is 48.1 years. And in tiny Damariscotta, with a population of about 2,200 souls, the median age is 50.7 years.

These figures, according to Town Planner Tony Dater, give Damariscotta the dubious distinction of having the oldest population of any municipality in the nation.

“Our 2014 comprehensive plan has as the highest priority strategies for aging in place,” Dater said. In preparation for developing additional retiree housing options in the community, he said, the town is reviewing zoning designations to maximize appropriate land use.

“Like most coastal communities in midcoast Maine, there are two income tiers in Damariscotta,” Dater said. “You’ve got your well-heeled retirees along the coast, but the further inland you go, generally, the more rural, native and low-income the population gets.”

That means, he said, that Damariscotta, which also serves as the commercial and professional hub for a wider population of about 20,000, faces a major challenge in providing affordable local housing for aging residents.

While Inn Along the Way has not yet made a formal presentation to the town, the existing commercial and rural zoning designations of the Chapman farm property make the development Sherry Flint and her team envision a likely possibility, Dater said.

‘A good way to get it done’

“If a community wants to take care of its seniors without worrying about [financial] exclusivity, this is a good way to get it done,” said community development specialist Kay Decker, a family friend of Sherry Flint and a professional adviser to the Inn Along the Way project.

With a background in elder care and gerontology, Decker, who also chairs the department of social sciences at Northwestern Oklahoma State University, assisted in the design and development of affordable planned senior communities in her home state of Oklahoma before agreeing to get involved in the Damariscotta project.

As people age, Decker said, many are glad to live with like-minded neighbors, to have built-in opportunities to socialize and make meaningful contributions to the community.

“The baby boomers are going to demand it,” she said. “And the [very] old need some type of support system in place and the knowledge that others in the community are looking out for them.”

Decker predicts that Inn Along the Way will become a model for other communities to emulate, in Maine and nationwide.

Sherry Flint is open to that possibility, but the project in Damariscotta is a long way from being ready to showcase.

She plans to have the teahouse and gift shop open for business in the old farmhouse sometime in 2016, the first round of residential cottages ready for occupancy in 2017 and the full project online within five years.

“Yes, it’s an ambitious timeline,” she said, “but I am a very determined person.”

Meg Haskell

Meg Haskell is a curious second-career journalist with two grown sons, a background in health care and a penchant for new experiences. She lives in Stockton Springs. Email her at mhaskell@bangordailynews.com.