Breaking Ground at Captain’s Way

Named for the seafaring ways of its former landowners, a new neighborhood on the island of Southport seeks to address the needs of Maine’s aging-but-active population.

On Route 238 in Southport, on a hill just south of the sheltered waters of Decker Cove, sit two new houses, one with a cherry-red door and one with an entrance painted lime green. They are two bursts of bright color in a wintry landscape, and although their shades sit opposite each other on the color wheel, it’s clear that these houses were built by the same hand, for the same purpose. Ed Jewett, the builder behind the in-progress development (and owner of the home with a red door), says he wanted all the houses in Captain’s Way (as the neighborhood is named) to feel “compatible, cottage-y, and true to Maine.”

“We didn’t want lots of garish colors on the houses,” he explains. “Everything is going to be pastel, muted tones, to fit with the region. But we thought we would paint every door a bright color—we have a nifty red and a nifty green. Next will be a bright blue door.” The red, he explains, was his wife’s idea. “Whatever she decides, that’s what we’ll get,” he adds with a laugh. “That’s why her nickname is the Boss.” Ed and Arlene Jewett moved into their new place a little over a year ago, but they’ve been dreaming about this project for six years. Like many Mainers, they were getting on in years and their “big, sprawling” house on Southport Island was beginning to feel like a burden. “We wanted to find something smaller,” Jewett says. “My wife and I were adamant about staying on Southport, but we couldn’t come up with anything that felt right in our search.” The Jewetts had been spending their summers on Southport for decades, and they wanted to spend their golden years there as well. “We don’t feel it, but calendar-wise, we’re elderly,” Jewett admits. The couple, now in their 70s, wanted to move into a two-bedroom house built for single-level living, somewhere they could be near other people of a similar age. They also wanted a property that would be low maintenance. But while there are aging-in-place communities popping up across Maine, they didn’t find a suitable place in Southport. And so Jewett decided to buy some land.

Previously owned by the Farmer family, the five-acre, forested plot was near perfect, but there was one hitch: it wasn’t zoned for a neighborhood-style, cluster-housing model. “We went to the chairman of the Board of Selectmen in Southport, Jerry Gamage, and discussed it with him,” Jewett says. “Everyone agreed it would be a good thing for the town.” Perhaps even a necessary thing. Southport is located in Lincoln County, which has the oldest population in Maine, a state that just so happens to have the oldest population in America. “There are a lot of people in this region who want the same thing,” says Karen Roberts of Tindal and Callahan Real Estate, who brokered the sale of the second house in Captain’s Way (the house with the green door) to longtime Boothbay resident Arlene Smith. “There are other people who are thinking about aging like Ed—they’re active, they like to garden, and they like to do their own thing. They don’t want to live in a big condominium where they are wall-to-wall with neighbors.” For these independent seniors, a place like Captain’s Way, which welcomes anyone age 55 and older, feels like a perfect fit. While there are similar communities throughout the state—including Highland Green in Topsham and Stevens Square, a project currently underway in Portland—Roberts notes that there is “nothing like it in our region, except for care units and assisted living places.” All the other options for aging residents nearby might feel “a bit more institutional,” she says.

According to the 2017 report Making Room: Housing for a Changing America, published by AARP in partnership with the National Building Museum, “America’s current housing stock doesn’t fit a rapidly aging population.” Most homes were built for families of four to five people, but the country’s largest demographic, 28 percent, is adults who live alone. America is seeing one of the biggest demographic shifts in our history, and Maine is at its epicenter; in the next two decades, one in four Mainers will be over 65. This is a huge segment of the population—one that has slightly different needs than other groups. These Mainers need houses that are safe and fall-proof (which is why Jewett’s houses emphasize single floor living and a secure garage-adjacent entryway), with doors that are easy to open for arthritic-prone hands (Captain’s Way features levers on the doors instead of knobs, as well as age-friendly toggle light switches), and doorways that are wider than usual (so that someone in a wheelchair can easily roam from room to room). “Communities across Maine are looking for housing solutions to address Maine’s aging demographic,” says Lori Parham, state director for AARP Maine. “The vast majority of Mainers age 50 and older want to stay in their homes and communities for as long as possible.” She adds that age- and ability-friendly housing options allow residents to stay in their hometown, “even when a change in health or physical fitness means that a person needs some help to live safely and with as much independence as possible.”

Jewett has a background in designing for older clientele, and he used much of his knowledge in the creation of his own home and the “spec house” that Arlene Smith now owns. Although small, these homes are mighty. Each house is designed with two bedrooms and two bathrooms and will have a porch, deck, and garage. The total square footage of the indoor and outdoor spaces will be “in the 2,000-square-foot range,” according to Jewett. Inside, they have modern kitchens, with white cabinets, subway tile backsplashes, composite stone countertops, stainless-steel appliances, and stylish pendant lighting. The kitchen opens to an airy living area and a comfortable dining room, all generously lit with natural light. Because Southport is a “cottage environment,” the houses are designed to have a classic Maine look, complete with gables, a gable frieze trim, and high-performance vinyl siding that mimics clapboard. Jewett also wants to keep the neighborhood small, and he intends to keep at least four acres of woodland intact. He likes being surrounded by pine trees and close to the sea. “It’s not like a park, but it has mature trees and a creek that runs through it down to Decker Cove,” he says. “It feels a bit like a park.” All residents have access to the common grounds and the frontage on the adjacent tidal backwater. They’ll also have access to the 300-square-foot garden shed, which will soon have electricity and running water. “My wife’s a great gardener, and Arlene Smith has expressed interest too,” he says. While none of the residents will need to take care of plants (lawn maintenance, snow shoveling, and all upkeep are paid for by association fees), they’re welcome to put down roots and plant a few rose bushes. “I wanted a house with one floor, that didn’t have a lot of land—I had ten acres, previously—and I wanted to be fairly close to the main road,” says Arlene Smith. “Captain’s Way had all three things, and I don’t have to worry about plowing or shoveling or mowing the lawn. It’s set up for senior living. It’s perfect for me.”

Smith was also pleasantly surprised by how easy the transition was from her home on Barters Island in Boothbay, where she lived for 20 years with her husband, Earle, to her new place in Southport. After Earle died in 2016, she first looked for a condo in Boothbay Harbor but couldn’t find one that met all of her needs. Several times a week, Smith, 86, drives into Boothbay Harbor to volunteer with her church and the used bookstore run by the Boothbay Harbor Memorial Library. She recently started volunteering at the St. Andrews Thrift Shop, and also likes to exercise at the YMCA. “I try to keep busy,” she says.

“We wanted to make sure everyone was on the same page in terms of age, and in similar situations,” Jewett says. It’s also essential that Captain’s Way residents are on the same page in terms of what kind of lifestyle they want to lead. “If someone is looking for honky tonk, rootin’ tootin’ next to a Denny’s restaurant, it won’t be right for them,” says Jewett. It’s a relatively quiet place, with access to nature on all sides, which aims to provide a balance of privacy and community. Each house is its own little castle, but they’re also within walking distance of neighbors. “Everyone is going to have a front porch,” adds Jewett, “so that people can sit on the porch and see their neighbors walking by.” Jewett isn’t just putting up houses—he’s constructing a new kind of active, welcoming community, building it stone by stone, beam by beam, from the ground up.