July 24, 2019

In T5 R8, fees rise, rules change Longtime renters pack bags as landowner asserts rights

T5 R8 – Some of the best memories of Muriel Fortier’s 89 years are crammed into her 20- by 20-foot cabin on the bank of the Penobscot River’s East Branch.

The rough wooden walls are papered with yellowing photographs – Fortier, who is known locally as “Mother Nature,” striking poses next to a deer carcass and astride her snowmobile; her late husband smiles over freshly caught brook trout.

On the bathroom door, crosshatches reveal how many pheasants were caught each fall. Near the refrigerator, she has recorded the jars of homemade raspberry, strawberry and blackberry jam squirreled away for the winter.

For more than 30 years, Fortier has spent every summer in this spot, living off the land and loving her solitude. But for the first time in her life, she’s thinking about leaving.

A few weeks ago, Fortier received a lease from her new landlord, Roxanne Quimby, of Burt’s Bees fame, informing her that the annual rent will more than triple to $1,500, and that beginning June 1, she will have to comply with new rules regarding the use of the land – no campfires, hunting, snowmobiling or ATVs.

“You can’t fight money and power, but by God you can try,” she said Tuesday. “I’m kind of hard to be pushed around. I like my independence.”

Quimby purchased the 24,000-acre T5 R8 from J.D. Irving Ltd. last year for about $12 million. The self-made millionaire has been buying forest land for preservation since 2000 and has said she hopes the forests will someday be protected as a national park and preserve.

Quimby currently owns more than 40,000 acres of Maine forestland, all bought at or above market value from willing sellers. With the sale of a $180 million stake in her natural cosmetics company last year, she has the funds at her disposal for further land acquisition.

Neither Quimby nor her Maine spokeswoman responded to requests for an interview this week, but she has previously described her effort as giving back to the land that sustained her when she lived in the backwoods of Maine before starting her business. With time, a park could help the faltering economy of rural Maine, she has said.

Quimby has never publicly stated specific plans for her township on the boundary of Baxter State Park, saying only that she hopes to work with local people.

“I think we live in a democracy. I don’t think I’m the queen of T5 R8,” she told the crowd at a forestry forum in December.

Nine family camp lessees and Bowlin Camps, a commercial sporting camp that operates half its business in T5 R8, know only that for the right price, they can have their camps one more year.

Nothing in Quimby’s leases states that she intends to force the camp owners to leave. But the documents don’t hint at any security either, and the people who have made this place their second home worry that they won’t fit into her plans.

Some families, including Fortier and her children, are paying the rent this year just to buy more time.

The Albert Ellis family has already decided that it can’t afford the $1,500 rent, $1,500 security deposit, and the newly required liability insurance coverage – at a cost of about $700 annually – to keep the little brown cabin that’s been in their family for years.

Quimby isn’t the only landlord who’s been raising rents, according to the Maine Leaseholders Association. The new rents are about average for camp leases in the area, association spokesman Stu Kallgren said Monday.

But most leases have gone up gradually over the past 10 years, he said.

This week, Albert Ellis of Patten and his grown son Peter of Houlton cleared their camp out for the final time, having decided that Quimby aims to drive them out.

“It broke my heart to do it,” Albert Ellis said Tuesday from his room at Mountain Heights Health Care where he lives in Patten, about 20 miles from the family camp on the East Branch of the Penobscot River in T5 R8. “The people around here are very angry. They feel betrayed.”

The Ellises knew the land wasn’t theirs, but after hundreds of family memories, it was easy to assume that the camp would always be there to be passed down to his children and grandchildren for hunting and fishing and enjoying the river, he said.

“It’s no fun if you can’t go up there and use the land,” Peter Ellis said Tuesday from the Ellis Family Market, which he operates in Patten. “It’s how we all grew up. I find it hard to believe that with all the rivers and land up there, that there’s not enough space for everyone.”

The loss of hunting and snowmobiling is an annoyance to some camp owners, but for local businesspeople like Terry and Craig Hill of Shin Pond Village or Joe and Sue Christianson of Matagamon Wilderness Camps, both of which are located just a few miles over the border of T5 R8, it means the loss of half their revenue. Without hunting and snowmobiling, that’s six months of paying customers gone, Joe Christianson said Wednesday.

“You take a little bit of hunting, a little bit of logging, a little bit of snowmobiling – you put it all in a pot and suddenly it’s not a little bit,” Craig Hill said.

The local owners of the sporting camps and the hunting guide services that line the road from Patten to T5 R8 keep the local hardware store and the Ellis Family Market in business.

“There will be nothing here. The towns are going to dry up,” Terry Hill said.

For Mike Stroff and his partners at Bowlin Camps, the stakes are even higher. Seven of the eight Bowlin cabins and half of the lodge sit on Quimby’s land. The rent has grown from $2,000 annually to $10,000, and the income-generating activities – primarily bear hunting and snowmobiling – have been banned.

Initially, Quimby had called the historic sporting camp a “special case” and offered to negotiate. She did, in fact, keep her word and met with Stroff a few months ago, but did not give him an answer until this week.

“She never meant what she said from the beginning,” Stroff said Wednesday of Quimby’s refusal to sell him 20 acres.

Leaving the camps would mean losing $2 million – the life savings of the business’s 10 investors, Stroff said.

The options for Bowlin Camp are limited, but for this year, they’re planning to hold tight.

“We’re not going anywhere,” Stroff said Wednesday.

Faced with the loss of about 12 miles of trails, the Maine Snowmobile Association’s Bob Meyers also met with Quimby, hoping to secure the use of ITS 85, a popular trail that connects the Millinocket area with Aroostook County.

Quimby decided not to allow the trail, which local business owners describe as “crucial.”

However, she did grant snowmobilers the use of a 10-mile connector trail between Bowlin Camps and Shin Pond Village, about half of which is on her land, for at least the next year, Meyers said Wednesday.

What worries snowmobilers, camp owners and business people the most is the uncertainty of their situation.

“I respect that it’s her land and she can do what she wants with it, but she should at least tell the people what she plans on doing,” Peter Ellis said. “Tell us straight. Tell us to our face.”

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