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Fewer old cars alters island

Gentrification emerges off Maine

PEAKS ISLAND, Maine -- They've been part of island life for as long as anyone can remember: decades-old clunkers with rotted body panels, loud mufflers, questionable brakes, and plastic sheets in place of missing windows.

Mechanically unfit or too rusted to meet mainland inspection standards, these island cars live out their golden years bouncing along unpaved roads on short trips between homes and ferry landings.

But these days, it's sometimes just as easy to spot a late-model Lexus, Volvo, or BMW as a traditional island clunker.

On Peaks Island, some fear the trend toward newer cars, and more cars in general, represents an example of how the 1-mile-long island is losing the tranquil, slow-paced lifestyle that many of its residents find attractive.

''It's kind of like the canary in the coal mine," said Charles Enders, president of the Peaks Island Neighborhood Association, who contends fancy cars and busy roads are a threat to the island's way of life.

Under state law, residents of Peaks, 13 other coastal islands, and Frye Island on Sebago Lake can register motor vehicles for island use only, an option that enables owners to skip the state's required annual safety inspection and keep their beaten-up wheels on the road.

Last year, 1,021 cars and light trucks were registered for island use, with 84 mopeds and motorcycles and 58 golf carts.

Unlike many other inhabited islands, Peaks has a car ferry that allows people to easily bring their cars from the mainland.

Even when a car ferry is available, the cost per trip in waiting time and money can be high. Consequently, many islanders keep a car on the mainland and an older vehicle on the island.

Some owners pride themselves on keeping old, high-mileage vehicles in operation well beyond their normal life spans. Most islands lack an automotive repair shop, forcing residents to do their own work or turn to a neighbor or friend for help.

Islanders have no desire to live up to mainland standards, and the registration for island use encourages that way of life, said Thomas Fortier, island and neighborhood administrator for the City of Portland. ''You're maintaining an island character," he said.

But Peaks Island is changing, becoming what Fortier called ''a desirable address." A steady rise in property values and taxes has fueled a gentrification process that has drawn wealthier residents driving better cars.

''It's really changed a lot," Enders agreed. ''When I first got here, there were some cars that didn't have windows, didn't have mirrors, and otherwise were in pretty bad shape. They're around, but you don't see that many of them."

By midmorning on a summer weekday, commuters, shoppers, and vacationers had grabbed up nearly all of the parking spots on the streets near the ferry landing and the post office.

The handful of true island cars in the lot stood out from the crowd. Perhaps the best example was a battered Ford pickup, its keys left in the ignition and its brake pedal held up with a bungee cord to add tension.

There is also the occasional automotive oddity, like Lynne Richard's yellow 1974 Volkswagen Thing, which she bought a few years ago with a spare transmission in the back seat. As it turned out, the transmission died, the replacement was installed, and her island car is still running strong.

But vehicles with standard Maine plates outnumbered those with yellow bumper stickers that identify them as registered for island use only. There also were a sizable number of out-of-state cars, many from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and New York.

Of course, there comes the day when even an old car can no longer be repaired. That raises the issue of disposal. In the old days, islanders dumped them in the woods or even drive their rust buckets into the ocean, letting the salt water finish off the job.

Those habits appear to be changing. For $75, local lobsterman Thomas ''Covey" Johnson will haul a dead auto by ferry from Peaks Island to the mainland for disposal as scrap. Johnson has towed 46 abandoned cars off the island since spring.

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