J.D. Irving’s proposed concept plan asks the Maine Land Use Planning Commission to allow new commercial and residential development around the lakes in addition to conservation plans and continued logging operations. Credit: Courtesy Land Use Planning Commission

The public gets its first opportunity to comment on a plan to rezone 51,000 acres within the Fish River Chain of Lakes at two public hearings later this month in northern Maine.

J.D. Irving’s proposed concept plan asks the Maine Land Use Planning Commission to allow new commercial and residential development around the lakes in addition to conservation plans and continued logging operations.

“We model our forests looking out 80 years,” said Anthony Hourihan, Irving’s director of land development. “At the same time we have these lakes with a lot of recreational opportunities and never really had an overall game plan for that land.”

Hourihan said the company has been working on the plan for five years.

“It’s a process,” he said. “It’s going slower than we like but we are feeling good at where we are.”

Irving owns 1.3 million acres of Maine forestland, 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.

“When we looked at our land, generally speaking mixing large scale recreation with [commercial] forestry is not ideal,” Hourihan said. “But with these four lakes we already have 400-plus existing [camp lot] leases and if we are going to allow future development it makes sense to do it where there is already that development.”

Irving formally filed a petition to rezone the land in 2014, spent the last three years working with consultants, and released the multi-volume concept plan proposal last summer.

The concept plan lays out a vision for the area over the next 30 years, including rezoning certain sections to allow commercial and residential development.

Under the plan, about 1,900 of the total 51,000 acres would be rezoned to allow development, with 1,300 acres slated for as many as 330 new residential lots and additional acres for commercial development.

The plan also would put 14,600 acres into a permanent conservation easement, including almost 17 miles of shoreline on the four lakes. The rest of the land would largely remain as timberland.

As part of the planning process, but not subject to any rezoning considerations, Irving is also considering the fate of more than 400 camp owners who lease the land on which their camps presently sit.

Two years ago Hourihan told the Bangor Daily News his employer would consider selling those leases to the camp owners once the concept plan process was complete.

“We really have not talked about what to do with those leases a lot,” he said. “What we told the leaseholders a few weeks ago was nothing has changed [and] at some point we may have interest in selling them.”

In the meantime, Hourihan said the relationship between those leaseholders and Irving remains unchanged.

“Of course we are concerned about the timing and cost of sale for our [leased] lots,” said Cheryl St. Peter of the Fish River Lakes Leaseholders Association. “But those are not under LUPC review criteria, but at the public hearings people can certainly speak about the leases.”

As a group, the leaseholder’ association has also prepared testimony looking at the plan’s visions regarding water quality, road ownership and maintenance, water access and development in remote areas.

At this point of the process, according to Nicholas Livesay, executive director of the Land Use Planning Commission, Irving is really fine tuning the massive concept plan.

“Last June Irving submitted a plan and changes to it since then have been a tailoring of that plan,” Livesay said. “There is nothing in there that goes in a totally different direction from the original submission.”

After the public hearings later this month, residents can still submit testimony through the written comment period which ends June 22.

“Once we are through with the public hearing process and the written comment process we will see if there is any final, outstanding information that needs to be resolved and then move into the deliberations phase,” Livesay said. “It would not be appropriate to hypothesise on the outcome.”

Members of the public are welcome to attend and participate in either of the scheduled public sessions slated for 6 p.m. for Tuesday, May 22 and Wednesday, May 23 at the Caribou Inn & Convention Center, 19 Main Street, Caribou. The LUPC anticipates that these sessions will be heavily attended, and speakers will likely be limited to three to five minutes each. The entire concept plan and process may be viewed on the LUPC website at www.maine.gov/dacf/lupc/index.shtml

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.