ACTON (AP) – York County has emerged as ground zero in a homebuilding boom that has spread across rural areas of southern and western Maine, gobbling up thousands of acres of timberlands each year.

Fast-growing towns such as Acton, Limerick and Waterboro are drawing families from outside the state and from Maine’s higher-priced cities and suburbs who are looking to put down roots in a secluded location with low taxes but relatively close to urban centers.

But as forests give way to subdivisions, there are mounting concerns that the rural economy and way of life is eroding one woodlot at a time.

“It’s eating up land, and I think it’s eating it up a lot faster than it needs to,” said Rene Noel, a forester who manages woodlands throughout southern Maine.

While controversy over development has focused on Plum Creek Timber Co.’s plan for 975 house lots and two resorts in northern Maine’s Moosehead Lake region, more than 20,000 acres of timberland in the southern and western part of the state has been converted to other uses over a seven-year period ending in January 2006, according to Maine Forest Service figures.

Although it has attracted little notice, the pace of land conversion has doubled over the previous decade, bringing changes to an area defined by forests that supply local lumberyards and provide recreational opportunities and wildlife habitat.

“It’s the forest we live in every day, but it’s kind of invisible,” said Lloyd Irland, a Winthrop-based forestry consultant. “We’re losing a lot of what makes Maine the way it is.”

Maine’s population growth rate has jumped from 46th in the nation to 26th since 2000, according to a recent report by the Brookings Institution. Most newcomers are moving from Massachusetts or New Hampshire, it said, and 77 percent of the arrivals are settling in smaller, less developed communities, such as Acton, and outside regional hub towns such as Sanford.

Although some of the new subdivisions are geared toward retirees, some of the homebuyers commute to jobs in Portsmouth, N.H., Portland or even Boston.

“At 5 and 5:30 in the morning, it’s taillights as far as you can see,” said Acton Town Planner Kenneth Paul.

The development boom has provided the region with an economic lift, bringing new investment, jobs and a broader property tax base to rural towns.

It also is helping to fill a clear demand for the homes. “Tell people to stop reproducting and then we can stop building homes,” said David Jones, who is proposing a 67-lot subdivision adjacent to the Eagles Trace neighborhood he developed in this town of 2,600 near the New Hampshire border.

Because subdivisions with 15 or more lots and 30 or more acres require a comprehensive state environmental review, many of the developments come in just under that threshold.

“There are a lot of small subdivisions, but when you put them all together, they add up,” said Paul Schumaker, executive director of the Southern Maine Regional Planning Commission.

Government policies and town-by-town land-use rules can encourage rural development. Development standards are more stringent in urban and suburban communities, even though they have the sewers, water and other services to handle growth. And state aid for education helps pay the costs of enrollment growth in rural schools at a time when urban school districts are shrinking.

“It”s one thing to give people what they want, but it’s another to subsidize them. We’re subsidizing low-density sprawl,” Irland said.

The thousands of woodlot owners who control most of the timberlands throughout the southern part of the state routinely receive offers in the mail from developers. And as owners age or pass land on to children who are uninterested in growing trees, the land often goes up for sale.

“The people who pay the highest prices are generally not somebody who”s going to buy it and manage it for timberland,” said Terry Walters, a forester for Lavalley Lumber Co. of Sanford, which buys much of its pine and other lumber from owners of small woodlots.

Information from: Portland Press Herald,

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