A remote community in northeastern Penobscot County is asking itself if it wants to call it quits as a town.
Drew Plantation, on the border with Aroostook and Washington counties, has been a small town for as long as anyone can remember, with a mix of permanent and seasonal residents. But its numbers have declined sharply in the past two decades. Its population of 26 in the 2020 census was down more than 40 percent since 2010, when there were 46 residents. Drew Plantation had 57 residents in 2000.
The residents who remain face the highest property tax rate in Penobscot County — $35 for every $1,000 in property value in 2020. And keeping the plantation afloat requires that a number of people wear multiple hats.
So on Tuesday, Drew Plantation’s residents will take a first step toward “deorganizing” — the legal process of dissolving the local government and becoming part of the state’s Unorganized Territory. They’ll hold a special town meeting to discuss the long, multi-step process of disbanding, which involves a number of hearings, multiple local votes, decisions about what to do with municipal property and a special vote by the Legislature.
“It’s time to move in that direction because our town is really small,” said Shannon Sears, the clerk for Drew Plantation. “There’s no revenue coming in so our mill rates have been super high, which is a big tax burden on the residents who are here full-time. And we’re just getting smaller. Our numbers are declining.”
This won’t be Drew Plantation’s first time starting down the deorganizing road.
Drew Plantation’s residents started the process before, in 2004. The Legislature approved the move in 2006, sending the measure back to the residents of Drew for a final vote. Despite the seeming promise of universal approval from residents, the measure to break up the town lost at the polls by a single vote later that year.
Since then, Drew has only become smaller.
Sears, the clerk, is self-admittedly a bit of an outlier in the community. She and her husband, Joe, have only lived in the community for a year. They relocated from Connecticut with the desire to live in a small town in Maine, where her family is from, she said.
Sears said she and her husband wanted a quiet farm that was more off the grid.
“We just wanted to go somewhere that was affordable for us, and at the time when we bought our property it was, until we got a tax bill,” she said. “We were shocked.”
They’ve also stepped in to do their part and keep local government running.
Three months ago, Shannon became the town clerk, voter registrar and property tax collector while Joe was elected to the town’s board of assessors, its governing body.
Shannon Sears’ coworker, Ashley Farwell, also wears multiple hats as Drew Plantation’s treasurer and excise tax collector. She has only lived in Drew for three years but grew up in nearby Wytopitlock. There isn’t much around and all three of her children go to school in Lee, more than 20 miles away.
A declining and aging population, high property taxes and a lack of people to run the government — what Drew Plantation is experiencing — are the challenges that commonly precipitate Maine’s small local governments to disband, said Nancy V. Bodine, the state’s fiscal administrator for the Unorganized Territory.
“It is a tough decision for a town to make,” she said.
If Drew Plantation follows through, it would become the 54th Maine community to deorganize. The most recent place to complete the process was Magalloway Plantation in Oxford County, which finished it last year. Before that, Atkinson in Piscataquis County, Cary Plantation in Aroostook County and Codyville Plantation in Washington County deorganized in 2019.
At any point in the process, residents can choose to stop, Bodine said.
But for folks like Shannon and Joe Sears, deorganization seems like the best option, at least to help decrease their tax burden. They hope to open a farm soon with fresh fruits and vegetables, plus milk and eggs.
“We’re trying to set up a self-sustainable lifestyle and farm and bring that to Drew,” Sears said. “People have to drive to Danforth, or Lee, or Winn, or Lincoln, for milk and eggs if they’re out. We thought it would be nice to do something to give back to the community we now call home.”