by Christopher Bouchard
The County news story
CARIBOU, Maine — All but one of 15 County residents who gave testimony on May 22 voiced their opposition to J.D. Irving Ltd.’s proposal to rezone 51,000 acres of land within the Fish River chain of lakes during a public hearing hosted by the Maine Land Use Planning Commission.
The public hearing in the packed meeting room at the Caribou Inn and Convention Center began with comments from Irving Land Development Director Anthony Hourihan, who provided a summary of the concept plan, which includes rezoning about 1,923 acres of the 51,000, or roughly 3.7 percent, for development. Of that 1,923, 1,496 acres are proposed for 11 new additional residential lots containing up to 330 units with the remaining 427 going toward four “community/economic development areas.” Another 14,750 acres would be placed into a permanent conservation easement.
“At this phase we aren’t proposing any development,” Hourihan told guests. “We are simply asking the LUPC commission to rezone some areas within this area that would allow for future development.”
He added that, at this point, Irving is primarily concerned with planning future developments, and determining where it “might occur, and what it might look like.”
Currently, Irving owns 1.255 million acres of forested land in Maine, including the large swaths of land in the Fish River Chain of Lakes to the east of the North Maine Woods. The land around the lakes is largely working timberland, but also is home to more than 400 lakefront camps on Cross, Square, Mud and Long lakes.
The plan, according to the director, primarily concerns those lakes in addition to “some impact around Eagle Lake.”
In terms of what may happen in 80 to 100 years, Hourihan said there is “very little insight as to where future development might occur,” adding that their concept plan will allow for a longer time frame in which they can manage the forest long term.
The director said the concept plan would be able to support jobs not only in the North Maine Woods, but in mills throughout the state, and he proceeded to show guests a video created by Irving.
“We shot the video,” he said, “so of course everything is going to be very positive.”
A large crowd gathered at the Caribou Inn and Convention Center on May 22 for a public hearing regarding JD Irving’s concept plan to rezone 51,000 acres of land along the Fish River chain of lakes. (Christopher Bouchard | Aroostook Republican)
The first two commenters at the public hearing, Bill Albair and Rick St. Peter, specifically commented on the threat of additional pollution to Cross Lake, which they assert already consists of too much phosphorus, and that additional development would only exacerbate the issue.
“A green sludge laps up on the shore and sits on top of the water,” said Albair. “If you leave a boat there for more than a few days, you’ll have scum on the bottom that’s difficult to get rid of, and as far as it being inviting to go swimming or tubing — that doesn’t exist anymore.”
Albair said that the zoning change could further impair the condition of Cross Lake, exceeding the legally allowed amount of phosphorus in the water.
St. Peter, who lives at Cross Lake, also said that construction projects near the water would only deteriorate the lake.
“One can only imagine that tons and tons of topsoil will be carried into Cross Lake,” he said, “and fertilizers and chemicals are used on this topsoil, which will raise the phosphorus levels in our lake. You’ll observe many washouts during the summer months going directly into brooks.”
St. Peter asked the LUPC members to “find the answers” related to both current and potential pollution in the lake, and to “put a plan of action together,” adding that “I think you’ll find most campowners more than willing to cooperate.”
LUPC Chair Everett Worcester then asked that speakers, who were limited to three minutes each, simply say whether they agreed on previously mentioned issues to eliminate redundancy.
“To the future people testifying,” he said. “Say, ‘I agree that Cross Lake has a phosphorus problem,’ and then spend time on another aspect of the plan you may disagree, or agree, with.”
Sarah LeClair, and many of the subsequent speakers, spoke of how the lakes’ solitude may be irrevocably changed if the LUPC were to approve Irving’s request.
“I can report with absolute confidence and certainty that Square Lake is a special place; it has a remote and intrinsic form of beauty,” she said. “Square Lake should not be transformed into a resort village with a 50 slip marina and scores of motorized watercraft.”
LeClair also challenged Irving’s proposed portion of land for easement.
“Irving’s plan, as written, provides less than a third for conservation and allows for transmission lines, emergency buildings, water extraction, and commercial logging within the conservation easement,” she said. “The fact that the plan assumes a need for the construction of emergency facilities underscores the remote nature of Square Lake.”
Shelly Mountain had questions about Irving’s motivation for rezoning the land.
“I own a camp on Portage [Lake],” she said, “and when people in Portage try to sell their camps, they sit there for years. I’d like to know, is there a high demand for this sort of development? Have you heard from a lot of people who want this and are demanding it?”
She asked the commission members if any officials from Irving could respond to her questions, and continued when it was made clear that they would not.
“I’m asking that, instead of ruining a lake for some dream of Irving’s to make all kinds of money off of selling it, let’s have it the way it is, where people are already enjoying it,” she concluded. “I’m not hearing from people that they don’t enjoy Cross or Square Lake now.”
Peter Tabor, who told guests that he is employed by Irving, said he is in favor of the plan as it could bring jobs and people to Aroostook County, a region with a rapidly declining population.
“For me, it’s all about having a place for my kids to work,” he said. “Both of my kids graduated high school and left Aroostook County, and that saddens me. I love it here, there’s low crime and it’s beautiful.”
Tabor added that, because of Aroostook’s population decline, he’s not sure if his children will ever come back.
“My wife works for the school board,” he continued, “and they just closed two schools: Eagle Lake and Soldier Pond, right around where we live. And without the schools, I think the communities will slowly die.”
Sarah Anderson spoke on behalf of herself and Northstar Variety, a general store and gas station located on Route 161 in New Sweden, which she and her husband Dave Anderson own.
“Our store is one of the last stops for many people on Square Lake,” she said. “We’ve built our business on being four season: spring and summer fishing, hunting, and ice fishing.”
Anderson said that commercial development on Square Lake would result in a “direct negative impact” on her business, as the development would inevitably lead to the creation of a store closer to the lake providing amenities and gas for workers.
Anderson, like many others who spoke during the hearing, said the development would forever change the peaceful and tranquil experience of going to the lake.
“The reason we purchased a camp on Square Lake is because, after dealing with the public seven days a week, 365 days a year, we like a little peace and solitude,” she said. “We’ve been there on days where you’re literally the only person on the lake. To change that will forever alter the place where so many have found joy. There aren’t many places where you can literally get away from someone, or people in general, and feel like you’re all by yourself on this earth. Once development starts, that will be forever altered. You’ll never be able to get that back.”
For those unable to attend the May 22 public hearing or a second one held the next night at the Caribou Inn and Convention Center, the LUPC is accepting written comments from the public until noon on June 22, and rebuttal comments until noon on July 13.
Written statements can be mailed to the Maine Land Use Planning Commission at 22 State House Station, Augusta, Maine 04333-022 or via email to Timothy.Beaucage@maine.gov.
The concept plan, as well as a timeline with information relevant to past and future developments regarding the rezoning proposal, is available on the state website at http://www.maine.gov/dacf/lupc/reference/resourceplans/fishriverlakes_prp015.html.