A sign that reads "MSAD 51 Greely High School" is shown in front of a building
U.S. News & World Report in April 2022 named Greely High School in Cumberland the best in Maine for the third year in a row. Credit: CBS 13

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A Portland suburb is showing it does not take much of a population increase to create big changes with the pandemic escalating gains over the past decade.

Cumberland, a suburb of just 8,400 people north of Portland, saw its population rise about 6 percent from 2019 to 2020, according to U.S. census data. The rise was on top of steady gains before that. Over the past 10 years, its population has increased 17.5 percent, one of the largest growth spurts in greater Portland.

To keep its small-town character and accommodate new residents, it has made notable policy changes and is considering building a new school. With nine Maine counties seeing their populations increase over the past decade, many towns are facing similar decisions in response to higher home prices and new residents.

One of the biggest moves aiming to retain Cumberland’s rural character was a conservation subdivision ordinance put into place last year, William Shane, who has been the town manager for 20 years, said. The ordinance requires developers to preserve half of their acres in its natural state, keeping homes clustered rather than spread out.

Memorial Day parade in Cumberland, Maine. Credit: Courtesy of the town of Cumberland

“The ordinance is the best tool anyone can use,” Shane said.

Cumberland’s housing problems differ from those in many other parts of Maine, mostly because homes there are already so expensive. Average home prices are up about $150,000 since the beginning of the pandemic to $580,000. But affordability is still a challenge being confronted by local officials.

The town is assembling a task force to work with the Greater Portland Council of Governments to decide how to handle affordable housing. Its future economic plans are considering whether to let small businesses along the Route 100 corridor build shops on the first floor and apartments on the second floor.

Most of the homes in Cumberland are year-round, and many residents are aged 55 or older. OceanView at Falmouth, a retirement community, is building a 105-unit subdivision in Cumberland, but the town hasn’t had any new conventional subdivisions in a while, Shane said. Only 40 new homes per year are built, the same as 40 years ago.

One big difference in the town’s population is who is moving in. Couples in their 30s and 40s with young children are moving into houses formerly occupied by one or two people, increasing the overall population and adding to the schools.

The town had projected it would need to accommodate 1,500 to 1,600 students in 2014. The actual number was 1,900 by then and it is now close to 2,150. That means a new school is needed to accommodate 500 to 700 children. Shane hopes it will be in North Yarmouth, the neighboring town with which Cumberland shares its school district. A vote for the school likely will appear on the November ballot, he said.

When we asked Bangor Daily News readers how new residents have affected their town, the vast majority of those who responded said they have seen an influx of new residents. Most respondents wanted to know about ways towns could better respond to a big influx, options for creating affordable housing and ways to adjust services to accommodate newcomers.

While some towns may see more traffic and demand for affordable housing, most people probably will not see a significant increase in costs to operate services, such as a transfer station, Jeff Levine, a consultant and former director of planning and urban development for the city of Portland, said.

The state’s population was growing since 2017, before the pandemic, and planners were taking that into account. Net migration in 2021 reached 16,000 people, the seventh highest in the nation, but Maine’s population only increased by 10,000 because there were more deaths than births, Maine state economist Amanda Rector said. She said it is difficult to tell now what the impact of the more recent in-migration to towns is.

“In general, I don’t think the impacts of population changes in Maine are really going to have a direct impact on taxes,” Levine said. “If anything, that might lower them because it allows these fixed costs to be spread over more residents.”