CROSS LAKE, Maine — More than 400 seasonal camp and year-round homeowners remain in limbo waiting for the state and J.D. Irving to reach an agreement on a development plan for 51,000 acres in Aroostook County.
The Canadian-based company, which owns 1.3 million acres in Maine, three years ago announced it no longer wished to hold leases on the land it has owned since the 1980s and began working on a concept plan that included selling the lots to the leaseholders over the next 25 years.
According to Anthony Hourihan, Irving’s director of land development, the company wants to focus on world-class forestry on the northern Maine timberland.
Last week Hourihan said the company is putting the finishing touches on its revised development plan and hopes to deliver it to the planning commission by the end of the year.
“We really hope to have this finished by Christmas,” Hourihan said. “After our initial filing we have been going back and forth with the planning commission to clarify and refine the plan.”
Hourihan said the company spent three years and hundreds of thousands of dollars to create the development plan.
For those holding Irving leases around Square, Cross, Mud and Long Lakes, a big part of that plan is the future of their lots.
“Once we have completed the concept plan process we will be considering making those leases available for sale,” Hourihan said. “In the meantime, the leases remain in effect as they have for decades.”
Hourihan was quick to say, when and if the company decides to sell the leases, no one will be forced to buy or vacate their camp or home.
“We are not going to kick anyone out,” he said.
That’s good news for people like Kirk and Cheryl St. Peter.
The retired couple have lived on leased land along Cross Lake since 2002 and have been keeping a close eye on Irving’s plans.
Several years ago when they caught wind of Irving possibly selling its leases the St. Peters formed the Fish River Lakes Leaseholders Association.
Leaseholders currently each pay around $1,600 annually for their lots, according to Kirk St. Peter. Irving pays the taxes on the land while camp or homeowners pay the taxes on any buildings.
“We sent a letter to Irving five or six years ago saying we as a group were interested in buying our lots and wanted to make sure the company knew that,” Cheryl St. Peter said. “Before we sent that letter, we sent out a questionnaire to current leaseholders and 93 percent said they would be interested in buying their leases [and] that’s a pretty resounding number.”
But uncertainty over the future of those leases since that letter was sent out and lack of communication from Irving are causing some seasonal and year-round residents to get out now, with at least seven camps for sale on the St. Peters’ road alone.
“Irving has not really kept us in the loop,” Kirk St. Peter said. “I imagine they have their hands full with other things.”
Graydon Mahoney, founder of Mahoney Real Estate in Caribou, said he has seen the market change drastically over the last few years around the lakes since Irving announced it was looking to get out of the leased land business.
“We used to sell 17 camps a year round the lakes,” Mahoney said. “Now it’s hard to sell two or three. It’s a real problem.”
Mahoney, who lives on leased land on Cross Lake, said a lot of the leaseholders would like to own their land.
“Right now people are really nervous about those leases,” he said. “Not owning the land makes people feel vulnerable.”
At the same time, Mahoney said, those on leased land wanting to sell have seen their asking prices drop over the last several years.
“I have one listing that started out at $135,000 and now it’s under $100,000.” he said. “We have people who have been trying to sell for years.”
Hourihan said Irving is committed to working fairly with the leaseholders, but at the same time does want to avoid a land rush around the lakes.
Once the concept plan is approved, the company can start the process of selling land to leaseholders, he said.
While no prices have been set, he did say Irving is looking at a formula that takes into account the size of the lot plus the amount of waterfront property on it.
Hourihan acknowledges the process may not be moving as quickly as some would like.
“We’ve been at this for around five years,” he said. “But we are talking about tying up the land and how it is used for decades, so we want to make sure it is done right.”
In addition to addressing the leased land, the Irving plan also looks at working timberland, existing and potential areas for traditional recreational activities, sensitive ecosystems and potential commercial development.
“This is the process that has to be gone through,” said Nicholas Livesay, director of the Maine Land Use Planning Commission. “With larger-scale planning, this is a sensible approach to land use.”
After his commission made preliminary comments and requested additional information in 2015 on the Irving plan, Livesay said he has not heard back from the company.
“From what I understand, they have been working on those revisions for almost two years,” he said. “Right now, we are not actively reviewing anything from them.”
Timber management and harvesting make up the bulk of activity on Irving’s Maine holdings, but Hourihan has 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 in an earlier interview. “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, Hourihan said, will allow Irving to put in action the company’s vision for the land.
For now, leaseholders on that land are taking a wait-and-see attitude.
“People have kind of put this on the back burner and we have not had a leaseholders association meeting for a while,” Cheryl St. Peter said. “Our whole objective was to get Irving to sell the leases to us [and] now we will continue to wait and hope that will happen.”
The proposed Fish River Lakes Concept Plan is available for viewing online at www.maine.gov/dacf/lupc/reference/resourceplans/fishriverlakes_prp015.html.