January 21, 2020

Addressing Woodland

The U.S. Postal Service may have its shortcomings in areas related to the actual delivery of mail, but the federal agency is without peer when it comes to being silly.

So it is with the raging dispute between Maine’s two Woodlands, one in Aroostook County, the other in Washington. For nearly a century, the fine folks of these two fine communities have managed to share the name with no strife or rancor. Now, thanks to the post office, normally rational town officials, citizens and even schoolkids are at each others throats.

Aroostook’s Woodland was incorporated in 1880, although its mailing address is Caribou. The Washington County settlement went by a variety of names until 1905, when postal authorities named it Woodland, too. Although the official name later became Baileyville, inhabitants prefer Woodland, as is their right.

Peace reigned, everyone knew precisely where they were, until early this year, when USPS told Washington Woodland it had to start calling itself Baileyville so the Aroostook town could be the one true Woodland. To make matters worse, USPS muddied the situation by giving the two towns a year to work out a solution to a dilemma it already had solved unilaterally. Lock representatives from two communities brimming with civic pride in the same room, tell one side they have to give in and watch the fun.

If USPS wants to change the sign over the Washington Woodland post office to Baileyville, that’s its business. But USPS has no business even implying that residents no longer can call themselves Woodlanders, that they have to change welcome signs or get new stationery. And if there is some truth to the recent spate of horror stories about the occasional misdirected piece of mail, one has to wonder exactly why the ZIP code was invented.

Incidentally, USPS will have to change its own ZIP code directory. Baileyville is listed as Woodland 04694. Aroostook Woodland, remember, has no post office, thus no ZIP.

There is one significant issue here, but it has nothing to do with the mail. A statewide E-911 system for emergency dispatching is close to implementation and eliminating confusing place names is necessary for the system to work.

The greatest source of confusion is when a town has two roads with the same name or very similar names, and most of those situations have been cleared up locally. Besides, the whole point of E-911 is that the person making an emergency call will not have to give the dispatcher a precise location; the source of the call will be electronically deduced. The emergency call from Washington Woodland will go to a central answering point, called a PSAP, in Machias, the call from Aroostook Woodland to Houlton. It’s rather unlikely that a Machias dispatcher will respond to an emergency in Woodland by ringing up the Caribou Fire Department.

The one gap in the system has to do with cellular phones — the current equipment will not allow the PSAP operator to pinpoint those calls. But if a visiting driver, unfamiliar with the territory, does not know which Woodland or which county he or she is in, that driver probably will not know what road he or she is on. If this ever occurs, it will occur rarely. And it is a problem that will be solved with better technology, not with new address labels.

The postal service created this mess, first by designating one town Woodland 93 years ago when another already existed and now by telling the two towns they just have to duke it out among themselves. It’s a goofy thing to do, but it does explain why this is the only nation on earth with cartoon characters on its postage stamps.

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