Snow surrounds the Albany Town House in Albany Township in Oxford County. Most of the township could be effected by a zoning change proposed by the state Land Use Planning Comission. (Sun Journal photo by Jon Bolduc)

ALBANY TOWNSHIP —Dennis Jellison, owner of Setters Point Inc. and a master Maine guide, had his reasons for moving to Albany Township. Tranquility, mostly.

A state Land Use Planning Commission map indicates unorganized territories in Oxford County for potential commercial and residential development. 

“I’m a master Maine guide. I hunt and fish for a living,” Jellison said. “That’s why I moved out here. Just to be in a nice, quiet area.”

Although it is hard for Jellison to imagine development in the rural township, a change proposed by the Land Use Planning Commission could transform that tranquility.

Under the “adjacency” zoning rule, commercial and residential development in unorganized territories can only occur one mile, by road, from an existing development.

The proposed rule change would open the door for development 7 miles as “crows fly” from outside the boundary of a designated population center of an unorganized territory, 1 mile from public roads in certain townships and the shoreline around certain lakes.

Mac Davis, a registered Maine guide and a member of the Maine Wilderness Guides Organization who lives in Albany Township, said the proposed changes could impact his livelihood. He owns a small canoe guiding business and said his trips normally are in the Rangeley Lake area and the West Branch of the Penobscot River.

“I’m acutely aware of the effects more development in those areas would have in those areas people outside the state come to Maine for,” he said.

Davis lives on Songo Pond and said while heavy development on lakes and ponds is normal in the southern and central regions of the state, northern land should  stay untouched.

“Lake Winnipesaukee is the last thing in the world you want to see Moosehead Lake becoming,” Davis said, referring to the New Hampshire lake. “The proposed changes would immediately allow the development north of Rockwood on the west shore of Moosehead. That would totally change the experience,” he said.

“When you look at our area, it’s not clear to me what direct effects would be, except that, essentially, all of Albany Township would be open for residential or commercial development without going through the zoning process,” Davis said.

According to the commission’s website, the commission “has been working on this policy review since 2016, with stakeholder meetings, focus groups and a public survey. Based on that extensive information gathering, the staff proposal was released in February and March of 2018. A companion proposal for subdivision standards will be released in June.”

Most of the public testimony submitted to the commission from Dec. 19, 2018, and Jan. 22, 2019, cites concerns about the potential for development in northern Maine, where most unorganized territories are located.

However, there are three areas in Oxford County identified on a commission map as zones that could potentially be affected by the change.

They include the South Oxford Unorganized Territory, a 95-square-mile area comprised of Albany Township, Mason Township and Batchelder’s Grant alongside the White Mountain National Forest; a small area near Sunday River Golf Course and Riley Township west of Newry, and Milton Township south of Rumford.

According to a Jan. 10 letter to the commission from Eliza Donoghue, a senior policy and advocacy specialist for the Maine Audubon Society, “One of the things that wildlife needs to thrive the most is large tracts of forests,” Donoghue said in a phone interview Feb. 28. “When you start having scattered development, it starts to chip away at those large forest parcels. The White Mountain National Forest is a great example,” she said.

Though changes to the unorganized territories themselves have drawn the most attention, Donoghue said it was important to consider how the changes could impact nearby towns. In Albany’s case, that’s Bethel.

“Bethel, in my limited experience, is having quite a resurgence, focusing on their wonderful outdoor recreation economy and tourism,” Donoghue said. “In order to keep that really strong, they need to make sure that development is concentrated in Bethel. The rules, as proposed, have potential to draw development outside of Bethel,” she said.

According to Catherine B. Johnson, senior staff attorney and forests and wildlife project director of the National Resource Council, under zoning changes proposed by the commission, more than 1.3 million acres within seven miles of an unorganized territories’ population center could be subdivided, and more than 800,000 acres would be open for commercial development statewide. She said the National Resource Council is worried about “sprawl,” or development strung out around roads, not near existing developments.

Not all public testimony submitted was explicitly against the proposed changes.

The Maine Forest Products Council wrote in a letter: “We are in favor of changing the adjacency rules to allow more flexibility to develop, particularly on the ‘fringes of the big woods,’ close to services. That would naturally channel development to least remote areas.”

For Jellison, who moved to Albany to escape development, the prospect is not welcome.

“Subdivisions would be a crying shame. … I have over 200 acres here, and 3,000 feet on the Crooked River,” he said.

“I could make this place into a gold mine, but I don’t want to chop it all up. I don’t want a Burger King in the middle of it. I love it just the way it is.”

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