By Julia Bayly, BDN Staff
Bangor Daily News news story
FORT KENT, Maine — State officials and the public got their first look at what Canadian-based J.D. Irving has in store for its 51,000 acres around the Fish River chain of lakes in northern Maine after the company filed its concept plan late last month.
The company owns 1.3 million acres in the state, including the 51,000 acres of timber and leased land around Long, Square, Mud and Cross lakes. Irving leases about 400 lots in that area for seasonal camps and year-round homeowners.
“A few years ago the company asked itself, ‘For the future, what do we want to consider for these parcels?’” according to Anthony Hourihan, Irving’s director of land development. “The company came to the conclusion that these [lakes] contain heavily developed areas and high recreation use areas.”
Hourihan said the company has spent the last three years and hundreds of thousands of dollars to create a plan that strikes a balance among recreation, development and conservation.
“We thought it was the best idea to come up with a long-range plan that projects use out to 80 years,” he said. “This concept plan is a tool that will help get us there.”
The plan takes into account the existing camp and year-round homes along the lakes, working timberland, existing and potential areas for traditional recreational activities, sensitive ecosystems and potential commercial development.
Because Irving no longer wants to lease the land it has owned since the 1980s, Hourihan said the concept plan includes selling lots to leaseholders within the next 25 years.
“We have had some meetings with those leaseholders,” Hourihan said. “We shared with them that, from our perspective, we don’t want to be in the lease business and that we want to focus on world class forestry.”
At the same time, Hourihan said the company wants to avoid a land rush around the lakes. All sales, he said, will be done over time in a highly controlled and managed process and only after the concept plan gets its final approval from the state.
“Once we have [the approved plan] in hand we can start that process of selling land to the lease holders,” he said. “There have been some internal discussions on how we will handle that.”
Hourihan would comment on any specific pricing on the lots, but did say the company is looking at a formula that takes into account the size of the lot plus the amount of waterfront property on it.
Above all, he said, the company is committed to working fairly with the leaseholders.
“These folks have been there a long time and have been good stewards of their land,” he said. “We want a fair and transparent process.”
Though the talks are still preliminary, Kirk St. Peter of the Fish River Lakes Leaseholders’ Association and year-round resident on Cross Lake, said he is pleased the company has kept the leaseholders in the loop.
“Things are still a bit vague,” he said. “But we are encouraged that we are still part of the process.”
The major concern on the part of the leaseholders, St. Peter said, is how much it is going to cost them to buy the land on which their homes or camps sit.
“For now, we are just waiting on the plan,” he said. “Then we will see what Irving does.”
Current lease owners will have the first right of refusal once Irving begins selling the leases, Hourihan said.
In an earlier interview, St. Peter told the BDN leaseholders pay around $1,300 annually.
Hourihan would not comment on specific lease fees, but did say Irving currently pays all property taxes on the land while the leaseholders pay the taxes on any buildings on the property.
Along with selling the individual leases, the concept plan includes a request to rezone certain areas for planned development of future camp lots or residences.
“What we envision is the ability to undertake residential or recreational development on about 4 percent of the plan’s total area,” Hourihan said. “I don’t see us getting into the business of building camps or homes, but rather partnering up with someone who comes along who maybe wants to buy five or more lots and develop those.”
Any such development, Hourihan said, would take place over a period of seven or eight years and in small “clusters” that include both waterfront and landlocked lots with common water access.
Other areas could lend themselves to small scale commercial and business development, he said.
Timber management and harvesting make up the bulk of activity on Irving’s Maine holdings, Hourihan said, but he said the company recognizes it has a certain responsibility as the state’s largest private landowner.
“A lot of the public use our land for hunting, snowmobiling and ATV riding,” he said. “We had to look at how do we manage the recreational aspects, as well as the forestry aspects so the two do not conflict.”
The concept plan, he said, will allow Irving to put in action the company’s vision for the land.
“This plan will influence our forest management plan and how we want to see the public access the land,” Hourihan said. “It is really a long-term strategic plan.”
Areas zoned for potential development, he said, will not be part of any long-term company reforestation plans.
“We will be separating our recreation and logging operations,” Hourihan said. “This is all based on good science and how to best manage all of our lands.”
The plan, filed Dec. 24, is now in the hands of the Maine Land Use Planning Commission where it is currently under review.
“We really are not at a point yet where we can make any comments on the merits of the plan,” the Commission’s senior planner Tim Beaucage said. “We are looking at it to make sure we have all the information needed to move forward.
Concept plans like the one submitted by Irving allow for structured and well thought out land use,” Beaucage said.
“It lets the landowner look at multiple holdings as one holding and how they want to use that into the future,” he said. “It enables him to build in some predictability and make a plan on where they want to accommodate development or where they want to freeze standards in a certain area [and] not all landowners want to tackle this.”
A copy of the zoning petition, proposed concept plan, and all supporting materials have been posted on the Maine Land Use Planning Commission website under “featured links.”
Copies of the plan are also available at the Commission’s offices in Ashland and Augusta, from the Aroostook County Commissioners office in Caribou and at the Fort Kent Town Office.
Beaucage said public comment meetings on the plan will take place at some point this spring and the meeting locations, though not yet pinned down, will be in Aroostook County.
“Once this plan is approved we will know what we will look like as a company,” Hourihan said. “We have spent a lot of time, money trying to get this right and getting it right is important to us.”