DAMARISCOTTA, Maine — Several years ago, the owner of a sandwich shop on the main drag here grew so tired of turning the clocks back in the fall — and witnessing the early sunsets that followed — that he simply decided not to. That year, he kept his shop on daylight saving time all winter.
“We have such short days,” said Sumner Fernald Richards III, the owner. “It was very nice to get out in the afternoon and still have an hour or two of daylight.”
Changing the clocks brings grumbles around the country, and especially here, in the nation’s easternmost region, where “falling back” in the wintertime means sunsets as early as 4 p.m. and sometimes earlier. But as the clocks once again were nudged ahead to daylight saving time in many parts of the nation over the weekend, foes of turning the clocks back in the first place saw a glimmer of hope in New England.
Efforts to alter time zones pop up around the country like spring tulips every year, and rarely get very far. But some in New England are trying a different tack this time: They want, in essence, to stay on daylight saving time throughout the year, and think that a concurrent regional approach could be the key. If multiple New England states make the jump at the same time, the thinking goes, it just might happen — even if that means taking the unusual step of splitting from the time zone of the rest of the East Coast, including New York City.
“We are a distinct region of the country,” said Tom Emswiler, a health care administrator in Boston who is part of a dedicated smattering of New Englanders pushing for the change. “If New York wants to join us on permanent Atlantic time: Come in, the water’s fine.”
The efforts to join Atlantic Standard Time would mean that, for about four months out of the year, some New England states would be an hour ahead of the rest of the Eastern time zone. Last year, Massachusetts created a commission to study the question. The states have not coordinated, but in New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Maine, proposals have been filed that could open the possibility for such a change, at the very least, if their powerful neighbor — home to Boston, an economic driver — does.
“Our markets and our businesses would be operating ahead of New York; I don’t know how they’d like that,” Massachusetts state Sen. Eileen M. Donoghue said. She is chairwoman of the state’s commission, which has a major public hearing this week.
The idea, the senator said, requires much more study and perhaps, down the line, will merit a summit meeting of the interested states.
“When you look at the geography, we certainly line up more with the Atlantic time zone,” Donoghue said. Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and parts of Canada including Nova Scotia are on Atlantic Standard Time now.
Experts say the plan seems unlikely to come to fruition. Even if state legislatures passed these bills — and, so far, only New Hampshire’s House has — it would require either a regulatory action by the federal Department of Transportation, or an act of Congress. The governors of Massachusetts and Rhode Island have expressed reservations about making such a break.
But the debate has renewed musings about why, exactly, this part of the country is part of a time zone that may better serve cities to its west, and whether the region ought to boldly step away from its neighbors — maybe even on principle.
“Why do we essentially torture ourselves — in the spring in particular — and keep changing the clocks and messing everybody up?” asked Maine state Rep. Donna Bailey, D-Saco, who filed a bill on the matter this year. Under the current form of the bill, she said, Maine would have a referendum on the issue if both Massachusetts and New Hampshire made the switch.
“If we do it on a regional basis,” Bailey added, “you carve out a niche for yourself, that you don’t have to be so dependent on New York City.”
Any such switch would create a special complication for Connecticut since the northern part of the state is closely tied to Massachusetts, while many residents of the southern section commute to New York City.
The most frequently cited argument against a change is its effect on schoolchildren, who would most likely board buses in the dark on winter mornings. Proponents counter that the whole state of Maine, as well as communities including Boston, are considering pushing school start times back, too.
Plus, opponents say, such a change could create confusion for businesses and chaos for passengers taking Amtrak trains from New York to Boston and trying to figure out what time it is. Broadcast schedules — and with them, teams like the New England Patriots and the Boston Bruins — could be affected as well.
“Once you start toying with the clocks, there are repercussions that people don’t bear in mind,” said Michael Downing, the author of “Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time.” Time was kept locally in the United States until 1883, when railroad companies established the time zones. Daylight saving time began in Europe during World War I as an effort to save energy. It was adopted by the United States in 1918 but repealed the following year after strident objections from farmers, who preferred having more light in the morning, not in the evening.
But more cosmopolitan and some Eastern areas, like New York City and the state of Massachusetts, decided to keep it, opening up an inconsistent approach to timekeeping until Congress split the difference in 1966 and set the rule as six months of standard time and six months of daylight saving time. It is now observed between the middle of March and the beginning of November — except in Arizona and Hawaii, which have opted out.
If nothing else, the bills have sparked renewed rumination on time and light here in New England, and many people have their reasons for considering a change.
“Definitely it would mean a longer day of business,” said Lynn Archer, a chef who owns two restaurants in Rockland, Maine, and groaned the other day as the harbor there glowed pink during an early evening sunset.
But the idea has left others — including the editorial board of The Bangor Daily News — aghast, saying it would isolate the state and hurt business. Plus, many Mainers are used to things as they are.
“You’re tough New Englanders, it’s just like — yeah, it’s cold and dark,” said Susan D’Amore, of Washington, Maine. “So?”