A former tannery in Camden embodies the constant fights over new developments on Maine's coast.
Tom Resek of Camden cares what happens on the town-owned, three-acre former tannery site that is located right next to his home. A few years ago, after a push to establish an ambulance center there, he helped form the Friends of Tannery Park so that the neighbors could have some agency over what happens there. Credit: Abigail Curtis / BDN

For eight years, Tom Resek has worked to figure out what’s next for the former Apollo Tannery property in Camden, a three-acre site where animal hide tanning and other industrial activities were conducted for more than a century. So far, there hasn’t been a development proposal he likes, though.

The tannery closed in 1997, and the town acquired the land six years later after the owner failed to pay property taxes. Since then, the future of the site has been a big question mark hanging over Camden’s Millville neighborhood — especially for neighbors like Resek.

A self-employed businessman, Resek is clear on what he wants for the property along the Megunticook River. He’d like to see a multi-use community park with a dedicated space for the Camden Farmers’ Market, as well as affordable housing opportunities.

What he doesn’t want is the other proposals that have been introduced in the past, which include a startup movie studio, an ambulance center, a three-story apartment building and a combination entrepreneurial makerspace and housing development. The 2014 ambulance center proposal, which he thought would be too noisy and dangerous for Millville, is what pushed him to help form the Friends of Tannery Park group. He wanted the residents to have some agency in what was built there.  

But what Resek really doesn’t want is for his activism in fighting for the future of his neighborhood to be given the often-negative label of NIMBY, or “Not In My Backyard.” A few people have used that term, which he sees as a phrase used to belittle those who want a say in what happens in their neighborhoods.

“It’s just much better to talk about the issue itself,” he said. “It’s a label, and a label that’s used, generally, in a negative way, to marginalize a group.”  

The debate playing out around the former tannery site in Camden is echoed around the state, but perhaps most acutely along the coast, where development pressures abound and residents want to protect property values and their way of life.

From land-based fish farms to replacements for aging bridges, to energy transmission lines, to  affordable housing developments, lots of Mainers believe that their backyards — literally or metaphorically speaking — are not the right place to build them.  

This pushback to development has high stakes, and often slows or stops projects in their tracks. Depending on the issue and on a person’s perspective, this can be either positive or troubling for Maine’s future.


Though the acronym NIMBY began as a 1970s rallying cry adopted by lower- and middle-income people fighting for environmental justice, it has evolved in the years to imply selfishness. Critics of those who embody the phrase include the growing YIMBY, or “Yes In My Backyard,” housing advocacy movement. They believe that people who already have something — a house, a job, money, a view — are fighting to keep others from having their share, too.

But it also makes sense that, in a time when so many political or global problems feel out of control, fights over what happens in a person’s town and neighborhood feel well worth having.  

“Yeah, I care about what’s in my backyard. I mean, who doesn’t?” Resek said. “Would you want a neighborhood that doesn’t care?”

Caroline Noblet, a University of Maine economics professor, said that local opposition to proposed developments is happening everywhere.

“We keep seeing it over and over again. There’s a pattern,” she said. “But it’s not a uniquely Maine thing to say that something’s proposed and we don’t like it.”

The foundation of a former tannery in Camden.
This is the foundation of the former Apollo Tannery in Camden. The three-acre site has been owned by the town since 2003, but the future of the property is still being determined. Credit: Abigail Curtis / BDN

Reasons include “status quo bias,” which is when people prefer things to remain the same. It’s a familiar refrain in Maine, the oldest state in the nation and where many residents have deep generational roots. That matters, she said, using the example that if someone’s grandfather proposed to their grandmother on a bridge, it can be hard to support replacing it — even if it is a bit rickety nowadays.  

“I think we’ve all been somewhere and cared about something, and seen it not be directly in our control,” she said.

Something else on her mind is the “drawbridge theory,” a term to describe when people retire or move to Maine because they like the scenery and other idyllic aspects, and don’t want that to change.  

“And then they want to pull up the drawbridge behind them,” Noblet said.

This group often has education, time and resources, and is well placed to fight change, she said. That means they can find themselves fighting for the same things as the generational Mainers, which can create powerful, if slightly unusual, coalitions against proposed change.  

“Perhaps it’s rare for those two groups of people — wealthy, well-educated … retirees, and the folks who have lived in town for a long time and don’t have a lot of resources, to agree on something,” Noblet said.

And it’s easier now than ever for opponents to find each other, thanks to social media and the internet.

“I think there were always opponents,” Noblet said. “Now, I think sometimes a small minority [of people] seems bigger, because there are more tools to get the message out.”

Concerns and questions

Peter DelGreco of Maine & Co., a Portland-based nonprofit organization that works to bring businesses to the state, said that opposition is slowing development of all kinds. Court cases, appeals and more can alarm investors and add a feeling of risk to projects. Town meetings about development projects can run hot, leaving communities only more divided and less likely to find consensus on proposals.

“Local opposition is absolutely a factor,” DelGreco said. “What’s got to happen — and this is probably a good thing — is that [companies have] got to spend a lot of time getting to know the community and what’s important to the community. That also means it’s incumbent on the community to find out for themselves what’s important to them.”  

Otherwise, what’s at stake for Maine is much larger than the individual development battles suggest.

“Some of these questions are really hard and challenging. We’re talking about what is our strategy for growth? What does our future look like?” DelGreco said.

A sign is posted at the lot of a former tannery in Camden.
The town of Camden posted signs this summer indicating that officials planned to do a brownfields environmental cleanup on the site of a former tannery. Credit: Abigail Curtis / BDN

He feels that what’s happening in Maine is mirroring a national trend: America is a polarized place, and one where people are quick to challenge ideas and decisions they don’t like.

“I think there is a natural distrust of everything, and people across the country are saying no to a lot of things,” DelGreco said. “Sometimes just because they want to say no, and sometimes because it makes them feel empowered.”

But to him, at least, the risk of just saying no is apparent. That’s especially true when it comes to aquaculture, something that has been part of the state’s economic development agenda for decades. Companies that want to build land- or water-based farms on the coast often have run into sharp opposition from people who have the resources to keep projects in limbo, sometimes for years.

“What we have is a handful of well-heeled people that have decided that we don’t want that,” DelGreco said. “They are completely changing the economic development plans of an entire state just because they have money … I think that’s driving NIMBYism.”

Vote of confidence

Beyond aquaculture, recent issues that have divided Camden include whether to add paid downtown parking and what to do about the tannery site and the Montgomery Dam on the Megunticook River.

“It’s definitely a challenge to make community-wide decisions on complex issues,” Select Board member Alison McKellar said. “Sometimes everybody just has different goals. Some people want there to be more tourists in town, and some people want there to be fewer tourists.”

The question of what to do with the tannery site is nuanced, she said. When the Apollo Tannery was running, it leaked chemicals onto a portion of the property. While the most serious contamination was excavated and removed in 2008, more low-level decontamination work still needs to be done.

On a slow stroll around the perimeter of the Camden tannery site, it’s not hard to see why Resek and other members of the friends group believe there’s potential in the property. Despite nearby construction work and the heat of the July day, the path is shady and peaceful thanks to the trees lining the banks of the Megunticook River. Milkweed, goldenrod, Queen Anne’s lace and meadow grasses grow unchecked over a portion of the property.  

“It doesn’t take much imagination to see this as a park,” he said. “I think we could be perceived as NIMBYs if all we said was, ‘Don’t do that.’ But it’s not a selfish pursuit to try and get something done for the community.”

The Megunticook River in Camden runs past a former tannery.
The Megunticook River forms one boundary of the site of a former tannery in Camden’s Millville neighborhood. Credit: Abigail Curtis / BDN

Still, though proponents of turning the property into a park have said that no other serious entities wanted to buy it from Camden, when the town put out a request for proposals, that turned out not to be the case, McKellar said.

“I don’t really have a huge or any agenda, myself,” she said. “I’m just so tired of having decisions be made by speculating about what people want.”

So the town put it to a vote. Last month, residents voted 871 to 618 against giving the Select Board the authority to dispose of tax-acquired property, including the tannery site. They also voted 900 to 628 against giving the board power to negotiate to sell the tannery property for at least $250,000.

Resek and the Friends of Tannery Park believe the results show a public vote of confidence in the park idea.

“As long as you can get a consensus or a group of people who do not just live next to it, it goes from being a NIMBY issue to a community issue,” he said. “We won over the whole town. The group that’s behind trying to make it a park has members in the whole community, not just in the neighborhood.”