Fish River Chain of Lakes: Sept. 20, 2019 Update
On Sept. 11, 2019, following the recommendation of its staff and with virtually no debate, the Land Use Planning Commission approved Irving’s revised Concept Plan for development on the Fish River Chain of Lakes. While there were a few changes proposed by staff, the substance of the proposal did not change significantly from the amended version of their concept plan submitted by Irving in June, 2019. Read the full final plan.
While NRCM is pleased that the approved plan eliminated the new subdivision that was initially proposed for the west shore of Square Lake and increased the amount of permanent conservation easement land as NRCM had requested, NRCM continues to believe that the level of development approved for Square Lake will inevitably degrade the pristine character of that largely undeveloped lake and the amount of conservation required does not adequately balance the development allowed, as required by law.
This decision results in the rezoning of the land. However, before any commercial or residential development can occur in the plan area, the developer will have to obtain additional development permits from the Land Use Planning Commission. There will be further opportunities for the public to comment on the specific proposed developments at that time.
Fish River Lakes and Maine Wildlife
If you ask anyone who has visited the Fish River Chain of Lakes, you’ll learn that it isn’t uncommon to see Bald Eagles, moose, deer, partridges, lynx, or bobcats. The Lakes themselves, a gem in the woods of Aroostook County, are home to landlocked salmon and wild brook trout.
Irving's Development Proposal
In June 2019, Irving submitted an amended version of their proposed concept plan for the Fish River Chain of Lakes to the Land Use Planning Commission (LUPC). Although the amended application includes some improvements, NRCM still has several concerns about Irving’s application.
In 2017, Irving submitted an application to the LUPC to rezone 51,015 acres of land in the Fish River Chain of Lakes region. In May 2018, NRCM testified in opposition to Irving’s concept plan because it would allow excessive development without adequate conservation. The original proposal would have placed a conservation easement on only 29 percent of the plan area. By comparison, the most recent concept plan considered by LUPC, Plum Creek’s Moosehead proposal, permanently conserved more than 95 percent of its plan area through an easement.
In our view, Irving’s amended application has the following improvements:
- The subdivision proposed on the west side of Square Lake was removed, and those lots moved the east side.
- Additional conservation land was added, increasing the total to 16,764 acres (from the previously proposed 14,778 acres). This means that 33 percent of the concept plan area would be covered by a conservation easement.
- Although the amount of development on Square Lake has not decreased, there are new provisions to regulate the pace of development on Square Lake to avoid adverse impacts on the lake experience and native fish populations. These measures are in response to concerns raised by NRCM and many members of the public.
- A marina would no longer be allowed on Square Lake, although docks, moorings and fuel sales would be allowed.
Despite these improvements, we still have concerns with Irving’s amended application:
- The plan would still allow significant amounts of development in relatively undeveloped areas, including the east side of Square Lake (where commercial developments, including a resort, would be allowed) and the south end of Cross Lake. These are not appropriate locations for the amount and type of development that would be allowed if the application is approved.
- While the amount of permanent conservation land was increased, it is still insufficient to provide a publicly beneficial balance between appropriate development and long-term conservation of lake resources. It does not mitigate the adverse impacts that the proposed development would have on Square and Cross Lakes.
- Before commercial and residential development can take place on the east side of Square, potential developers would still be required to submit more detailed plans for the area to the LUPC for their review. Under the current plan, a public hearing would be optional. NRCM is recommending that LUPC make a public hearing on future proposed plans mandatory.
Why We are Involved
Irving’s Fish River Lakes concept plan will set a precedent for future rezoning projects in the North Woods, and the Natural Resources Council of Maine is intervening in this process to examine the facts and raise our concerns. An economically and environmentally responsible concept plan should promote quality conservation, protect the natural resources and character of remote lakes like Square, and safeguard the beauty, history, environment, and wildlife of the Fish River Lakes region.
As an intervener in the review process, NRCM testified in opposition to Irving’s concept plan at the Land Use Planning Commission’s (LUPC) hearing in Caribou from May 22 to 24. Community members spoke out overwhelmingly against Irving’s proposal.