Links of interest for

USA : North Haven & Vinalhaven


Maine is a state in the New England region of the northeastern United States, bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the east and south, New Hampshire to the west, and the Canadian provinces of Quebec to the northwest and New Brunswick to the northeast. It is known for its scenery – its jagged, mostly rocky coastline with small offshore islands, its low, rolling mountains, its heavily forested interior and picturesque waterways – as well as for its seafood cuisine, especially lobsters and clams. More than a century ago, there were 300 year-round island communities in the Gulf of Maine. Today there are just 15. In 1983 the Island Institute was launched to serve as a voice for the balanced future of Maine’s year-round island and working waterfront communities. The Institute’s emphasis is on advocacy, convening, technical assistance, publications, educational programs, college scholarships and other resources.

This case study will focus upon two sister islands, Vinalhaven and North Haven, twelve miles off the coast from Rockland. The history of Vinalhaven goes all the way back to the Native Americans who visited the island almost 5,000 years ago. It was settled by the English in the 1700’s and, in 1846, Vinalhaven and neighbouring North Haven officially split to become separate island communities. Vinalhaven became a leading producer of granite in the 1800s and more about its history can be found at the Vinalhaven Historical Society and the North Haven Historical Society also has a new building open to the public.

Vinalhaven is the largest island in Penobscot Bay both geographically and demographically. It has a year-round population of over 1,200 that swells to between 4,000 and 5,000 during the summer. North Haven has a year-round population of around 380, adding 800 more each summer. The Vinalhaven community is clustered around the busy commercial port of Carver’s Harbor where over 200 lobster boats are moored. Around the edge of the harbor are four lobster-buying stations that handle the catch from one of Maine’s most lucrative lobster ports. Lobster fishing is indeed the keystone of Vinalhaven’s economy although tourism is also an important industry as local businesses can see a considerable increase in profits during the summer months. Another major employer is the school that employs about 45 people to serve as teachers and support staff for its 200 students.

Renewable Energy & Eco Housing

Vinalhaven has long generated its own power. Tidal waters flow under the Tidewater Motel, through the remains of a mill system that once used hydropower to run a granite cutting operation and a blacksmith’s bellows with a network of belts. At one time, a coal-fueled power plant operated near where the ferry landing sits today. Today, Vinalhaven and the adjacent North Haven are connected to the mainland by a power cable that runs under Penobscot Bay, but energy loss from the cable and high cost of distributing meant that in 2008 residents paid 29 cents per kWh, while the national average hovered around 11 cents per kWh, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

To become more energy independent, the Vinalhaven community formed Fox Islands Electric Cooperative that installed three 250-foot wind turbines on the island in 2009 to offset their electricity costs. The project cost $14.5 million and the story behind it was chronicled in a film documentary ‘Islands in the Wind’. The three turbines have the capacity to generate 4.5 MW, enough to power about half the electricity use during the year of Vinalhaven and North Haven, both part of the Fox Islands. In addition, up to 50 homes and businesses on both islands will install electric thermal storage heaters. These units can absorb a day’s worth of heat in dense, ceramic bricks, and will be charged with electricity from the wind turbines. The charging will take place when the project’s three turbines are generating more power than the islands need, which is common in winter. Rather than sell electricity to the mainland grid at low prices, the energy will be used on the islands to offset the high cost of oil and kerosene heat.

Initially, nearly all the islanders supported the project hoping the turbines would result in lower electric bills. After the turbines started spinning, electricity prices dropped to 24 cents per kWh, a 17% decrease. But soon after their installation, a few neighbours living near the turbines began to complain about the noise they made. They formed Fox Islands Wind Neighbors to oppose the turbines and filed a lawsuit asking a judge to nullify a June 2011 order by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) against the coop utility developer Fox Islands Wind. Instead, the group wanted the court to institute an earlier version developed by DEP staff that imposed tougher sound compliance requirements. The coop had surveyed island residents in May 2010. Out of the 515 returns, 82% said they could not hear the turbines from their homes with some stating the sound of the diesel generating plant was much louder than the turbines. But 3% of respondents complained they could hear the turbines and half of those said they could hear them often. This 3% was the small but vocal minority in the Wind Neighbors group. The DEP subsequently advised that the turbines did not exceed 45 decibels at night. However, to reduce the sound the coop installed serrations to the edges of the blades. (Update: On 23 March 2012, a judge ruled that a legal petition aimed at reinstating a state rule for limiting noise at the wind farm can proceed, denying a motion from the developer, Fox Islands Wind, for dismissal.)

The Fox Islands initiative has encouraged other communities to follow their example. With support from the Island Institute, a formal study to determine the feasibility of wind power for Swan’s Island began in 2010 and the residents of Monhegan have voted with a 75% majority to proceed with plans to erect a small turbine on the island’s highest hill. The Island Institute has also held a meeting to look at the potential for developing floating, offshore wind farms and tidal energy sites in the Gulf of Maine. One of the chief difficulties of harnessing the Gulf of Maine’s enormous wind resource (estimated at 5 gigawatts) is that the peak energy from winter winds is not easily stored. As already mentioned, the concept of a ‘dumb smart grid’ is already underway on the Fox Islands to turn on inexpensive retail electric heaters that plug into outlets when the wind is blowing and turn them off when the wind is not. Some of this excess power could also be soaked up by batteries for use in electric vehicles or heat community-scale greenhouses to supply residents with year round fresh produce.

In 2011 the Island Institute received a competitive $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to expand the development, implementation and evaluation of an educational model designed to increase the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) competencies and career aspirations of students in rural communities. Energy for ME, which first received $50,000 from Time Warner Cable’s Connect a Million Minds national STEM initiative for a pilot project on North Haven and Vinalhaven, also received $124,000 from the Environmental Protection Agency. The overall goal of Energy for ME is to provide students with tools to help them decide their communities’ energy futures. Working with 13 of Maine’s year-round island and coastal communities, Energy for ME directly engaged at least 50 teachers, 100 students and their families to increase STEM energy-content knowledge and technology proficiencies by analyzing, discussing and responding to locally relevant energy issues. Students and their families learnt how to use ‘smart’ meters to measure energy usage and explore renewable energy sources with the goal of increasing home and school energy efficiency and reducing energy consumption. Participants at each project site measured energy usage at their school, a community building and two residences, competing with the other community sites to see who could save the most energy. The NSF funding enabled the Institute to expand this model to other island communities along the Maine coast and produce some interesting webinars to discuss the latest energy efficiency and renewable energy research.

Waste Minimisation & Recycling

On Vinalhaven household refuse or domestic waste is disposed of in 33 gallon plastic bags not exceeding 40 pounds. Each bag deposited at the transfer station must have an appropriate disposal sticker attached to it in a visible location otherwise it will not be accepted. There are 16 recorded categories for recyclables and solid waste that are all itemized by tonnage, and the line item budget for the transfer station involves more than 20 categories. There are separate storage areas for white goods, old cars, tyres and demolition materials. There is also a ‘swap shop’ at the transfer station where usable but no longer needed items can be dropped off, hopefully to find a new home. Municipal solid waste is then sent to the Norridgwock landfill on the mainland who charge a $55 per ton tipping fee and $725 per trailer for transport, plus the ferry ticket. A creative new Velcro closure system was added to green bins to prevent vermin getting in (or out) and to solve leakage problems when bins are being transported on the ferry.

According to the State Planning Office, Vinalhaven generates about 900 tons of municipal solid waste per year and this figure would be 24% higher if the island didn’t recycle. The state wants communities to recycle 50% but it is difficult to see how Vinalhaven can improve upon their already efficient facility. Their transfer station makes it relatively easy to recycle all manner of materials including paint and batteries. In some communities there is only one day a year when you can bring in paint and used oil.  But on Vinalhaven, you can bring it anytime. The island spends $6,500 per year to have their recyclables hauled by Bunker’s Trucking, but this saves it about $12,000 because recycling costs less than disposal to landfill. The 2012 budget for the transfer station is $305,000 and the revenue it generates is projected at $100,000. 

North Haven residential and commercial solid waste is based on the same ‘Pay as you Throw’ program.  The Town Office and transfer station sell stickers for $1.50 for each 33 gallon bag of household waste.  Recyclables include newspaper, magazines, cardboard, office mail, cans, glass, and plastic. These are batched and delivered to local redemption centres on the mainland.  General demolition and metal debris is billed by the cubic foot or by an itemized schedule based on the size, or special handling requirements.  Specialized fee schedules include automobiles, freezers, refrigerators, white goods, tyres, mattresses, paint, and batteries.  The transfer station heater is fueled with recycled motor oil collected from residents and commercial customers. Residents are encouraged to establish back yard compost piles and the Town Office offers compost bins for a charge. It is estimated that 5% of North Haven residents participate in the composting.

Water Management & Security

Vinalhaven sits atop what is called a sole source aquifer supplied by precipitation that slowly percolates down through cracks in the granite to replenish the lens, or bubble, of fresh water under the island. In the dry summer months of heavy water usage, that lens gets smaller as it is drawn down by human use, and salt water can intrude into wells near the shore. The water needs of the main settlement are supplied by water pumped from the Round Pond and there have been summers where the demand for water has exceeded its replenishment rate.

North Haven distributes surface water obtained from Fresh Pond, located near the centre of the island, and it has historically met the town’s water demand.  During periods of drought, ‘no watering’ bans have been enacted as a precaution.  Since the supplied water is considered surface water, its quality must meet that of the Federally Mandated Surface Water Treatment Act. The finished water is sampled daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annually in accordance with this law. North Haven’s water is processed through a new, slow sand filtration plant, completed in June of 2003. The water is pumped into the plant by one or a combination of two raw water pumps, and injected with ozone to break up organic matter.  The water passes through contact chambers and is then filtered through four three-stage slow sand filters. The water enters a contact clear well where it is treated with chloramine for disinfection purposes and pumped into the distribution system.

Extensive Agriculture & Organic Food Production

North Haven always has been the most agriculturally inclined of Maine’s island communities, with its rich soil and relatively flat terrain. Unlike Vinalhaven there’s no granite at all to speak of. North Haven’s farms encompass a combined area of under 400 acres. While this is far less than the 80 farms with a total of over 6,000 acres recorded in the agricultural census of 1860, they still provide an important foundation in the wheel of the local economy. Organic and farm-to-table produce are market-hot after years of building awareness of just how good fresh food is in taste and health benefits. Nearly 100% of North Haven’s farm sales are made to the island’s several restaurants, the grocery store and residents. Between Turner Farm, Sheep Meadow Farm, Cider Hill Farm, Grant Family Farm and the variety of bakers, beekeepers, fishermen and other purveyors located on the island, fresh vegetables, cheese, meat, bread and sweets are available from May until October. Visitors can sample an array of locally grown food and North Haven oysters at Nebo Lodge, the eight-room inn and restaurant owned and operated by Chellie Pingree and her daughter Hannah. The former is a Congresswoman and owner of Turner Farm who since getting elected in 2008 has become an outspoken advocate of local food and farms during her time in Washington.

Vinalhaven, despite less favourable terrain, also has three small-scale farms that have been growing organic produce for several years. In 2010, they were joined by Dean Stockman and his wife who leased a 25 acre farm that is already certified by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. His sod soil was so dense it took twenty passes with the tractor to loosen up enough to even think of planting in it. But the sod helped them with the no-watering farming style that they brought with them from Vermont. The sod’s dense structure held onto rains from April and it was moist in July to grow a full crop of vegetables and grains. Sparkplug Farm is another new enterprise started under the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. When you purchase a CSA membership you receive a weekly share of freshly harvested vegetables. By preordering your produce, you are helping cover the costs of seeds, fertilizer and other farm expenses incurred early in the year when there is little or no cash flow available. Also, you give farmers a better idea of the quantity and variety of food that they should be growing for the season making their operation more efficient.  

Despite the upsurge in small-scale sustainable agriculture, island farmers, like their mainland counterparts, face many financial and technical challenges. Some of these issues are exacerbated on islands where land prices and property taxes are steep.  The Arts & Recreation Centre (ARC) on Vinalhaven was initially founded in 1981 as an unstaffed space available for year-round community activities. In 2008 the organization experienced a transformation both physically and philosophically. With the help of dedicated students and community volunteers the ARC raised funds to hire staff and aid in the construction of the ARCafe, start a local foods market and workplace training programs for young islanders. In 2011 the ARC VH Ag Fund was established. Rather than granting cash directly to growers, these tax-deductable, restricted funds are used by the ARC to purchase all available Vinalhaven agriculture products grown to ARCafe buying policy standards. To date the Fund has raised over $5,000, which was used to purchase fall crops from eight Vinalhaven growers. The majority of food purchased is used for meals in the local school and distributed to those people on fixed and low incomes. 


Vinalhaven and North Haven can be reached year round by air and sea. Penobscot Island Air makes multiple daily flights to both islands and the Maine State Ferry Service from Rockland makes nine runs per day with their car ferries. The possibility of introducing electric cars to Vinalhaven on a trial basis has been promoted by the Island Institute following the Massachusetts island of Nantucket example to establish five charging stations at the airport and other appropriate locations for a fleet of electric rental vehicles in an effort to dissuade visitors from bringing their own cars

Sustainable Tourism & Niche Marketing

For about 120 years Vinalhaven and North Haven have been summer retreats for seasonal homeowners and remain quintessential Maine fishing communities. On both islands there are miles of hiking trails and many roads to cycle around as well as numerous small art galleries, cafes and restaurants for tourists to visit. Fox Island Concerts and award-winning plays are also frequently performed at Waterman’s Community Centre on North Haven and the Smith Hokanson Memorial Hall on Vinalhaven.

In 1985 and 1986, the Bureau of Public Lands contracted the Island Institute to make management recommendations for approximately 100 state-owned islands with potential for recreational use. This led to formation of the Maine Island Trail Association that is a membership organization dedicated to the protection and enjoyment of a 375-mile chain of over 190 coastal islands and sites along the coast of Maine, available for day visits or overnight camping. Through twenty years of community building, stewardship, and education, the Association has developed a model of sustainable recreation and created America’s first recreational water trail.

Biodiversity & Protected Areas

It can be easy to forget how unusual the coast of Maine really is. It’s a craggy, wild coast with over 3,000 islands, most of them uninhabited and owned by the public, along 3,500 miles of coastline. No other state, outside of Alaska, has so many wild offshore islands as Maine. The Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which includes island refuges that were established between 1972 and 1980, contains more than 50 offshore islands and four coastal parcels and includes five national wildlife refuges – Petit Manan, Cross Island, Franklin Island, Seal Island and Pond Island. In total, the refuge complex includes over 8,000 acres of diverse coastal Maine habitats including forested and bare offshore islands, salt marshes, open fields, spruce and fir forests.

The primary focus of the NWR complex is restoring and managing colonies of nesting seabirds. The islands provide habitat for common, Arctic and endangered roseate terns, Atlantic puffins, razorbills, black guillemots, Leach’s storm petrels and others. Over the past 25 years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has worked to reverse the decline in these birds’ populations and as a result of the conservation efforts many species have returned to islands where they historically nested. Unlike national parks, where people come first, National Wildlife Refuges are primarily to protect wildlife habitat. People come second, so after the seabirds have finished nesting and rearing their young, most of the islands are open to the public.

The Maine Coastal Islands NWR opened a new visitor centre at Rockland in May 2012. It shares the building with the non-profit Friends of Maine Seabird Islands (FOMSI) community based organization founded in 2003 by local individuals dedicated to encouraging the conservation and appreciation of seabirds, their nesting and coastal habitats. The FOMSI supports both the Refuge and its close partner, the National Audubon Society’s Project Puffin, by contributing funds for seabird research and supporting student interns working on the seabird nesting islands during the summer. The College of Atlantic Island Research Centre also monitors seabird populations utilizing the latest GIS and GPS technologies. Its Great Duck Island field research station has recently benefited from the College’s Green Technology Initiative, converting to a more sustainable power grid, employing photovoltaics and a generator running biodiesel.

The Maine Coast Heritage Trust (MCHT) conserves and stewards Maine’s coastal land and islands for their renowned scenic beauty, outdoor recreational opportunities, ecological diversity and working landscapes. MCHT promotes the conservation of natural places statewide by working with land trusts, communities and other partners. Founded in 1970, the trust was a pioneer in the use of conservation easements as a way to protect land. Vinalhaven has over 10 public parks and land preserves and the Vinalhaven Land Trust plays a vital role in preserving them and reports on local sightings. Similarly, North Haven Conservation Partners currently holds seven conservation easements protecting more than 199 acres of land.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Gulf of Maine Coastal Program works with a variety of partners to share information, knowledge and capabilities for habitat conservation at the landscape scale to support healthy populations of fish and wildlife. The Gulf of Maine Council on the Marine Environment was established in 1989 to foster cooperative actions within the Gulf watershed. Amongst other things, it produced a habitat restoration and conservation plan in 2010 together with a web portal.

Integrated Development Planning

Vinalhaven is currently updating its Comprehensive Plan by conducting inventories and analysis in 13 different areas that are all subject to multiple surveys seeking community input. The Comprehensive Plan for North Haven was completed in 2008. The Island Institute hosts an annual Sustainable Island Living Conference that brings year-round island and coastal residents together with regional and national experts to discuss strategies for sustainability and economic vitality in remote communities along the Maine coast. In 2012, the Island Institute released the third in its series of Island Indicators reports that provide a detailed ‘snapshot’ of the demographic, economic and other indicators that affect the sustainability of Maine’s year-round island communities. Using the 2010 U.S. census data along with other recent studies and surveys, the Institute has identified trends that signal both concerns and hopes for the future. With information about island housing costs, educational attainment, economic drivers, demographics and much more, these reports are designed to help island governments, schools, businesses and institutions continue to be proactive in dealing with the challenges and opportunities they face. They are also intended to give state and regional legislators a better understanding of the ways in which Maine’s island communities offer innovative solutions to issues facing rural communities across Maine and beyond.

Climate Change Mitigation & Adaptation Measures

In 2007, the Island Institute initiated a program to catalog the influence of climate change and sea-level rise on coastal Maine by recording the observations of lobstermen who are most familiar with the ocean and most directly impacted by its change. This is a collaborative effort by scientists and lobstermen to measure observable changes in ocean temperature, acidity, phytoplankton bloom and freshwater runoff as well as data on lobster stocks, such as shed, movement landings, habitat and other factors affecting the health of the fishery. A preliminary report indicates lobstermen are noticing significant changes in the annual pattern of the fishery. Lobsters no longer shed in a predictable fashion and are moving into deeper water earlier in the season with fishermen harvesting the bulk of their catch later in the year.

The Maine Sea Grant College Program at the University of Maine has produced a five part documentary Building a Resilient Coast: Maine Confronts Climate Change and a property owner’s guide to flooding, erosion and other coastal hazards. The University of Maine also has a Climate Change Institute that conducts interdisciplinary research around the world.