Maine's largest landowner, Canada-based JD Irving, is hoping to get the green light this week to rezone 51,000 acres around four scenic Aroostook County lakes for residential and commercial development.
The 30-year plan calls for as many as 330 new development units, and it would conserve nearly 17,000 acres. It could also pave the way for residents who currently lease camp lots to eventually buy them. But there are also concerns about how development could change the rural character of the region.
It's a region known as the Fish River chain of lakes which includes Long, Cross, Mud and Square, located in the geographical crown of Maine in northern Aroostook County. Of the four lakes, Square is considered the least developed and most remote, with several dozen camps surrounded by Irving's vast timberlands.
"This is one of the last, if not the last, bastion of wild brook trout habitat left in the country. It's wild, and it's remote and pristine, and it's in danger," says Michael Maynard.
Maynard lives in the nearby town of Perham. He's an avid fly-fisherman who says the cold, deep lake also includes a sustainable population of salmon. But Irving's plan calls for construction of camp lots and a lake-side lodge, which Maynard finds objectionable.
"We don't need more development in our wild areas,” he says. “We need to conserve habitat, not develop it."
The region is also popular for other types of recreation: hunting in the fall, snowmobiling and ice fishing in the winter and, in the spring and summer, riding four-wheelers.
One place where travelers make frequent stops is Miller's General Store on the west side of Long Lake in the tiny town of Sinclair. Proprietor Jerry Beaulieu says his business booms during the summer months as campgrounds fill up and the population of Sinclair doubles to about 600. But there are times of the year when he says it's tough to make a living, which is why he supports Irving's plan for development.
"The more population, the more people come to your store,” says Beaulieu. “Somebody's gonna have to do the roads. Somebody's gonna have to do the foundations. Somebody's gonna have to do the construction, so it's work for everybody."
Jerry Beaulieu says Irving should be able to do what it wants with its holdings, within reason. And he thinks the company has shown that it is responsive to local residents' concerns.
Cheryl St. Peter, secretary of the Fish River Lakes Leaseholders' Association, agrees. She and her husband have a house on Cross Lake and have been closely watching the plan evolve over the past seven years.
"Irving made several amendments to the plan, and they've all been better, so the final version that came out in June 2019 is way better than the one they started with," St. Peter says.
But, St. Peter says, some residents of Cross Lake remain concerned about several proposed subdivisions for the lake, which already has a serious water quality problem. There's also a big question about what Irving has in store for about 400 leaseholders. These are homeowners with camps or houses around the four lakes who own the buildings, but not the land they're built on. Instead, by tradition, the lots are leased from the landowner — in this case Irving — for a fixed rate each year.
“They do have a provision (in the concept plan) that states that if the business climate is correct for their purposes, they, at some point, intend to sell the lots,” St. Peter says. “They have not committed to any timeframe or any cost, other than that it would be fair market value."
"There's been no commitment to selling anything to the existing leaseholders," says Anthony Hourihan, Irving's director of land development.
Hourihan says that in the event the company does decide to sell lots in the future, the concept plan provides a framework for doing so. But the idea that new camp lots could be built, and that existing camp lots sold and potentially enlarged into year-round homes is a red-flag for Cathy Johnson of the Natural Resources Council of Maine. The plan calls for the permanent protection of nearly 17,000 acres from development but Johnson says it's not enough.
"The law requires that there be a balance between development and conservation, and it's our view that this amount of conservation simply is not sufficient to balance the amount of development that's being proposed," Johnson says.
Johnson points out that the conservation easement covers about one-third of the area slated for rezoning. By contrast, she says, the Plum Creek Timber Company was required to protect 95 percent of the area it proposed for rezoning around Moosehead Lake more than a decade ago. So far, none of the resorts or homes planned for Moosehead have been developed, although the company still has 20 years to construct them.
Anthony Hourihan says Irving could find itself in the same boat.
"This simply sets out the rezoning and, in some cases, the standards by which any future development would happen,” Hourihan says. “And, again, the plan is a 30-year horizon, so sometime between now and 30 years, if anything happens, we'll have to follow this plan, and development may never happen in some of these areas."
Staff for the Land Use Planning Commission have endorsed the concept plan, which is expected to be formally taken up on Wednesday.