By Phyllis Austin, Maine Environmental News (www.meepi.org). 6/5/02
(Photos from The Birches website)
John Willard, owner of The Birches and Wilderness Rafting Expeditions Inc. in Rockwood, is planning a 50-lot shorefront subdivision on Brassua Lake. He said the development is necessary to support his other business operations and hold on to his 10,500 acres in Tomhegan Township. "I have to do something, and I prefer not to sell out," said Willard, who has been instrumental in land protection initiatives in the Moosehead area.
Willard held a public informational meeting about his plan in Rockport on May 25, but only two people showed up, in addition to Fred Todd, planning division manager for the Land Use Regulation Commission (LURC). Todd said he was there to hear the reaction of locals. Willard must apply for a development permit from LURC and intends to file a lake concept proposal for 660 acres on the east side of the 8,979-acre lake. He would cluster the lots and set aside the majority of the subdivision land for conservation.
Willardís development would be much like that of Plum Creek Timberís First Roach Pond subdivision at nearby Kokadjo and indicative of the growing changes in the North Woods. The 89-lot First Roach project was approved as a lake concept plan Ė landowner created with a long-term approach and a large block of shoreland protected.
Karin Tilberg, Maine director of the Northern Forest Alliance, said her organization would "strongly support" a conservation easement purchase of Willardís lake frontage to make it unnecessary for him to subdivide it. "Given that Brassua Lake is one feature in the Greater Moosehead area identified by 150 citizens and business owners in the Greenville area as an important place, it would be wonderful to work with Mr. Willard to secure permanent protection," she said. "The Moosehead area is experiencing huge development, as evidenced by the Plum Creek subdivision, and development of Brassua would be another loss to the natural pristine features" of the region, she said.
Willard is interested in exploring easement possibilities, given his "mixed feelings about development." As a founder of Friends of Moosehead, he is familiar with that alternative. The Friends group is promoting landscape scale conservation easements and targeted fee acquisition of the Moosehead region, including Plum Creekís land around Brassua Lake and Moose River.
Willard talked with North Woods Wilderness Trust in Rockwood about an easement purchase of his shorefront land, but the timing wasnít good. "They said they were bogged down with the Big Spencer Mt. project and didnít have the money or time," Williard reported. He hasnít talked with other land trusts yet but offered that he has received a call from the New England Forestry Foundation (NEEF) to make a site visit and talk about his landís easement potential. NEEF raised $28 million to buy development rights on the Pingree familyís 757,000 acres of forestland in the Rangeley Lakes and northern Maine areas.
Both Brassua and First Roach Pond are designated by LURC as management Class 3 water bodies. That means that the commission deems them potentially suitable for development, given that there have been camps on the shoreline for years. Brassua is rated a resource Class 1-B lake, with a significant brook trout fishery and outstanding cultural resources. The lake, located along Rt. 15 west of Rockwood, has been enlarged by a dam on the southeast end.
Plum Creek Timber is the largest landowner in the area, owning almost all of the shoreline that Willard doesnít hold. Indicative of the market for waterfront lots, the first phase of Plum Creekís subdivision sold in three weeks Ė without advertising. The smaller lots were for sale for as low as $65,000 and the larger ones, for $125,000. Brassua Lake is 30 miles from First Roach.
Willardís subdivision would be created on Poplar Hill, a football-shaped peninsular extending out into the lake from the east shore and 180-fett above the lake. He is of the opinion that "most people donít seem to mind" his subdivision plan because they donít see it dramatically changing things on Brassua Lake. There are about 45 lots on the lake now, he said, most of them on the shore off Rt. 15.
"The idea behind the Class 3 lakes is they are on the fringe of the [LURC] jurisdiction and not susceptible to adverse impacts if they are developed," Todd said. "If development happens, weíd rather see it on these lakes [close to existing development]. . . in context, they are the most appropriate." There are 30-some Class 3 lakes in LURCís 10.5 million-acre jurisdiction.
Willard is well-known in the Moosehead area as an entrepreneur. Besides overseeing forest management on his large tract, he runs a sporting camp and rafting outfit. The Birches has been a fixture in the Rockwood area since 1930. Willardís father bought it in 1969 from Telford Allen and ran it until 1985. John Willard bought out his father and in the early 90s acquired 11,200 acres of the old Great Northern Paper land when Bowater put up Tomhegan Township for sale. Along with the land, Willard acquired 145 leased lots (140 on Moosehead and five on Brassua). Willard said he has sold all but a few of the lots to lessees.
The Birches Resort today has 18 cabins, a marina, and a restaurant. It features moose watch safaris, tours around Mt. Kineo, fall foliage cruises, cross-country skiing, kayaking, mountain biking and whitewater rafting. Willard spends the majority of his time running The Birches, but heís also busy managing his woods. He called his harvesting strategy "very selective, limited cutting," with a priority for growing sawtimber of mixed species.
Willard is planning to sell his subdivision "over a period of time." He said the parcels would average three acres each and have 200 feet of lake frontage. Every third or fourth lot would be conservation land, much like the plan of First Roach Pond. Willard has discussed with LURC placing restrictions on the style of camp built, the color of paint used and a limit of 600 square feet for outbuildings. Also, he is considering prohibiting lights at the water overnight and mandating a low level of noise. He said the next step is to get soils work done to determine where waste systems can be built and determine if there are archaeological sites in the area.
Thereís also the possibility Willard will develop a primitive sporting camp at the northwest corner of the lake known as Manís Head. "Itís more isolated from snowmobile [routes]," he said and thus would be attractive to cross-country skiers and others interested in escaping motorized recreation. "Thereís hardly a place in Maine where snowmobiles donít go," he said. The Birches already has a system of trails for cross-country skiing and soft-construction yurts for overnight lodging in the backcountry.
LURCís Todd reported that at Willardís informational meeting, one Brassua Lake campowner was interested in whether there would be a boat launch to access the Poplar Hill development, and he didnít want to see unauthorized camping as is happening on the south side of the lake. "That tends to be kind of rowdy crowd there," said Todd. "John assured him that [a new] boat launch would only provide access to a carry-in site and wouldnít be large enough for an recreational vehicle to park for an extended time," he said.
Another question came up about whether there would be shorefront and back lots, and Todd said that "John is thinking mostly of shorefront." Also raised was protection of wildlife habitat and fish spawning areas, and "John assure them thatís what he has in mind," Todd said.
The next step for Willard is to "flesh out his proposal," said Todd, but because it will be a concept plan, "weíre not looking for detail at the subdivision stage, except to know the number of lots." Todd noted that Plum Creek proposed their first three subdivisions at the same time they asked for approval at the concept plan stage.
When Willard applies for a permit, the proposal will go to the LURC commissioners for review and to the public for comment. As he goes forward with the concept plan, Willard remains hopeful that an easement project can materialize but insisted "unfortunately I canít do nothing."