GREENVILLE – Ten years from now, the gateway to the North Woods might need a traffic light.
But on a recent weekday morning the streets were silent. The steamship Katahdin remained iced into Moosehead Lake, and the local merchants who weren’t still enjoying their winter in Florida were busy re-stocking their shelves to entice the coming rush of summer tourists.
For most of them, it’s unimaginable that Greenville could become a booming vacation community like Kennebunkport or Bar Harbor.
Plum Creek Timber Co.’s proposal of a huge development project with nearly 1,000 house lots and two high-end resorts scattered through 426,340 acres of the forest around Moosehead Lake hasn’t quite sunk in yet.
“Shock and awe,” said Ken Jobe, describing his initial response to Plum Creek’s recent announcement, over coffee and pancakes at The Boomchain, a local breakfast spot.
Officials like town manager John Simko and the Piscataquis County commissioners have issued effusive statements about Plum Creek as economic savior, but most local residents are less convinced.
The Moosehead region is changing fast and local people don’t have control over what their home is becoming, said Pat Gruenberg, who runs Northwoods Outfitters in downtown Greenville with her partner, Mike Boutin.
“There’s so much up in the air, and the state of Maine is behind the ball on this,” she said. “Now we’ve got this big company that’s pushing, pushing, pushing with all this money.”
“It’s a scary time,” Boutin agreed. “There’s development in so many places where you never thought you’d see it.”
Greenville has never formalized a vision for its future in a comprehensive plan, and the state has not delivered on its promise of a long-range plan for the unorganized territories of the Moosehead region.
Yet, over the past 10 years, dozens of lots have been sold in areas that just a few years ago guides were marketing to tourists as wilderness.
A quarter-million dollars for a property on Moosehead Lake is becoming common – $700,000 not unheard of, locals said. Some lots at the First Roach Pond subdivision in remote Frenchtown Township have doubled in value to well over $100,000 since Plum Creek sold the land just a few years ago.
The demand for vacation homes on the water seems to be endless, said Greenville real estate broker Bill Higgins.
“It’s a big world out there,” Higgins said. “There are 80 million people within 8 hours of us – not counting Canada.”
Jobe lives in a development just outside of Greenville, and most of his new neighbors are people from New Jersey, New York and Connecticut, he said.
If the Plum Creek development goes through, the region will be filled with more summer residents and retirees from urban areas who push up housing prices and don’t fit in, he said.
“If I were king, it wouldn’t happen,” Jobe said.
Others believe Plum Creek’s long-range plan might be better than the alternatives.
“A big company like that … there are so many watchdogs,” said Cheri Goodspeed of the Moosehead Lake Indian Store.
Goodspeed moved north from Wells four years ago, fed up with the unplanned development by dozens of different landowners. Now she sells woodsy souvenirs to tourists while her husband commutes to Connecticut for work.
“The reason we came here was to get away from all that encroachment … [it] was totally inundated by sprawl,” Goodspeed said.
No one can stop development – only ensure that it doesn’t destroy the very environment that draws people to the Moosehead Lake region, Higgins agreed, adding that he’s not sure yet where the balance will fall on the Plum Creek proposal.
“A lot of people from all over the world come here to see what we have, which is natural beauty. If they want to see traffic and neon lights and a lot of crime, they can go to Vegas,” Higgins said.
Like all local business owners, Boutin stands to benefit from the money that Plum Creek and other developers pump into marketing Greenville, but he’s not sure the income will make up for what could be lost.
“I want to see my business grow, but I don’t necessarily want to see people on my favorite trout pond … you feel a sense of loss when that happens,” he said.
Farther into the woods, villages like Rockwood, on the far shore of Moosehead Lake, and Kokadjo – “population: not many” according to a local bumper sticker – have more to gain, and more to lose, from the Plum Creek development.
Already, large homes are cropping up in the development around First Roach Pond, a few miles southeast of Kokadjo. Plum Creek spokesman Jim Lehner has called First Roach a model for the sort of development the company envisions on countless other ponds in the North Woods.
The dirt road where the new homes are located is hardly suburban, with a 40-minute drive to the nearest grocery store. Long driveways and forested buffers maintain the illusion of forest, and the only sound is that of the wind rattling dried birch leaves.
But the big new log cabins are a far cry from the ramshackle one-room fishing camps that make up the only existing development on many of the ponds slated for subdivision by Plum Creek.
“I like the woods and the waters up here. I like remote,” said John Willard, who has run a large sporting camp called The Birches at Rockwood for 20 years.
Willard said he doesn’t know enough to oppose the Plum Creek plan, but he’s heard enough to have some reservations. The plan includes a 230-lot development and a small resort around Brassura Lake a few miles west of The Birches.
“I don’t know that we have 230 houses in all of Rockwood right now,” Willard said. “That seems like a lot of development pretty rapidly.”
And if Plum Creek isn’t careful, badly placed development could harm the fisheries that draw tourists to the region, said Bob Croce of Spencer Pond Camps.
The Roach River serves as a “vitally important” state-protected nursery for the wild landlocked salmon in Moosehead Lake, yet the plan includes a large RV campground nearby. Other lakes where house lots have been proposed are little more than ecologically sensitive “puddles,” where species could easily be lost.
“They can’t absorb the development pressure that some other bodies of water can,” Croce said.
Friends of Moosehead, an organization of area residents concerned with protecting access for recreation and forestry, is raising questions about Plum Creek’s conservation plans. A working forest easement would protect more than 300,000 acres – but only for 30 years, noted Jim Glavine, the group’s president.
Development is permanent, and conservation should be, too, he wrote in an article set for publication in a local newspaper this week.
For even if Plum Creek tweaks its plan to allay the fears of local people, developers will keep proposing subdivisions and resorts that stand to change the face of the North Woods forever, locals said.
“You can’t stop a freight train,” Boutin said.
BANGOR DAILY NEWS PHOTO BY DENISE FARWELL
This property on First Roach Pond in Frenchtown Township is similar to those Plum Creek would sell as part of a proposed development plan on Moosehead Lake in terms of lot size and potential buyers.
BANGOR DAILY NEWS PHOTO BY DENISE FARWELL
Mike Boutin, owner of Northwoods Outfitters in Greenville, believes the Plum Creek development plan would bring in more customers to his store, but he thinks some of the cherished wild areas in the region would be lost.