FORT KENT, Maine — Officials with Canadian-based J.D. Irving are unveiling preliminary plans to sell some of its leased land and possibly new lots on the Fish River lakes chain in northern Maine.
The company owns 1.3 million acres in the state, including 50,000 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.
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.”
Since Irving no longer wants to lease the land it has owned since the 1980s, Hourihan said this week that the company is developing a concept plan for those 50,000 acres that includes selling lots to leaseholders within the next 25 years.
About 200 leased parcels scattered around Irving’s land in Maine outside the Fish River Lakes Chain are not part of the concept plan, Hourihan said.
Irving also is identifying unique areas for resource conservation in the Fish River lakes area. As part of the plan, the company also is gathering ideas for maintaining public access for recreation and expanding trail networks for activities such as cross-country skiing, ATVs and snowmobiling.
Several areas also have been designated as potential economic development sites.
“We felt that if we were looking at a long-term plan that during the process we should also identify areas that could support commercial activity in the area,” Hourihan said. “These are areas with good public road access and adjacent to current developed areas such as stores or communities.”
No specific plans are in the works, but Hourihan said the company felt it would be a good idea to include economic development zones now as they potentially could be appropriate locations for small commercial stores, recreation-based businesses or community housing for seniors.
Some areas are adjacent to the water treatment facility in Sinclair and may be attractive for light manufacturing, he said.
“As we understand this is the first concept plan that incorporates this type of zoning,” Hourihan said. “We are really just trying to anticipate what the future might hold and try and incorporate it now in a comprehensive plan.”
The plan, in its early drafting stages, has been shared with leaseholders, county commissioners, development groups and other stakeholders, Hourihan said.
The next step will be to present — likely this fall — a completed development plan to the Maine Land Use Planning Commission, he said.
“This concept plan will help us deal with the existing leaseholders and guide us for future developments,” he said.
Over the years, according to Hourihan, Irving has received a number of requests from individuals who want to purchase their leased property or secure new leases on undeveloped parcels.
“We have done a resource comparison and determined, with the development already around those lakes, that is where we want any future development,” he said. “The idea is to separate those four lakes in some form and fashion from the working forestland Irving owns.”
Opening new parcels for development is part of the plan, Hourihan said, but he stressed that these new lots will not be directly on the lakes’ shores.
“The current lakefront leases are done in lots 150 feet apart,” he said. “We are not envisioning more of those.”
Rather, any new lots would be set back from the water with common access roads or trails to the lake.
For years, many leaseholders have wanted the opportunity to purchase their lots, according to Kirk and Cheryl St. Peter, president and secretary, respectively, of the Fish River Lakes Leaseholders’ Association and year-round residents on Cross Lake.
In 1997, the association surveyed its then 373 members to gauge the interest in purchasing lots, Cheryl St. Peter said on Wednesday.
Of the 233 leaseholders who responded, she said, 212 said they would purchase their lots if given the opportunity.
Over the years that sentiment may have changed, her husband said, especially given the rise in prices on waterfront property.
“That is really one of the main concerns and questions about Irving’s plan,” Cheryl St. Peter said. “We are hearing from people who are wondering what the cost of these lots will be [because] there are a lot of people on fixed incomes who spend their summers on the lake and maybe won’t be able to afford to purchase.”
Which leads to another concern, she said.
“What will happen to those people who can’t afford, or who don’t want to purchase their lots?” she said.
In no way does Irving at this point envision making the sale of leased lots a “take it or leave it” scenario, Hourihan said.
“We have told the leaseholders on those lakes that — pending a favorable outcome of our plan — we are going to take a hard look at the existing leases and make them available for purchase,” he said.
Pricing likely would be based on fair market value and a decision on how to handle any situations with leaseholders not wanting to buy their lots would be addressed at that time.
“We would have to make a decision on that at some point,” he said. “At the end of this we want to be out of the leasing business.”
Leaseholders pay roughly $1,300 annually, Kirk St. Peter said.
“That is really not a bad fee for waterfront property,” he said. “We all knew we had a fairly good thing, but there are a lot of things wrong with not owning your own land.”
The St. Peters are quick to say that Irving always has treated them fairly and that they trust the company.
At this point, according to Hourihan, the plan is still very much in the development stage with nothing written in stone.
“We want to show people what we are thinking in terms of this land,” he said. “We feel that is the right approach.”