CHESUNCOOK – Circling over Chesuncook Village in a seaplane and peering out into the calm blue sky, visitors flying in would never guess that a storm has been brewing below in this remote community north of Greenville.
For the past two years, seasonal and year-round neighbors have greeted fellow residents sometimes with a helping hand and sometimes with a cold shoulder. A few cottage owners have avoided the place because of the bickering and rumors they say have spoiled the tranquillity of their little Eden.
Some residents point their fingers to a family “from away” who settled there in 1999 to eke out a living in the hospitality business as the cause of the dissension and talk of lawsuits. Still others say it’s a war between the “haves” and the “have-nots.”
“It’s like there’s a curse on this village – I don’t know whether it’s in the water or what,” seasonal resident Hans Mikaitis said of the turmoil.
At the center of the controversy is a Massachusetts family that purchased the Chesuncook Lake House. The problem isn’t that David and Luisa Surprenant, formerly of Mattapoisett, Mass., and their five children, who range in age from 8 to 12 years old, settled here. It is the fact that they began to make changes to their property that affected others, some say.
“In small communities, you have little rifts, but everybody pulls together. Now somebody moves in from away and tries to change it into little Boston,” Alan Smart, president of the local camp owners association, said during a recent interview on a friend’s deck.
Looking out across Chesuncook Lake to Gero Island, Smart, of Lincoln, shook his head and wondered aloud whether peace could ever be restored.
Camp owners were not pleased when the Surprenants introduced several buffalo to the village as their food source, Smart said, but it was their effort to close and now move a section of gravel-and-grass roadway that has been used by some property owners for more than 50 years that has caused the conflict.
“When somebody injures someone in the community, it doesn’t set well with the local population,” Smart said.
A piece of heaven
Located about 50 miles north of Greenville, Chesuncook Village is accessible only by boat, floatplane, or a 4-mile overland hike. Perched on the shore of Chesuncook Lake, the state’s third-largest lake, the isolated community overlooks Mount Katahdin. Ten people live in the village year-round. The summer population can swell to 100.
“The minute we bought this place, we’ve been under a microscope,” Luisa Surprenant said during a recent interview conducted at a rustic table in the couple’s cozy lodge in the village.
“It’s petty ignorance bordering on prejudice,” she said.
David Surprenant, who has summered at Chesuncook since the 1950s, said he loved its remoteness and beauty and decided it was where he wanted to raise his family. When the Chesuncook Lake House, a large sporting camp facility with a rambling lawn, came on the real estate market in 1999, the couple bought what they thought was their piece of heaven. “You have no choice where you’re born, but you have the choice of where you live,” said David Surprenant, who had been self-employed as a manufacturer of automotive catalytic converters. “We moved here to raise our kids for a different lifestyle.” Wanting to be self-sufficient, the couple maintain the lake house center as a sporting camp. They home-school their younger children and board the older children at Foxcroft Academy in Dover-Foxcroft. They have planted gardens for fresh produce and brought in a few buffalo to raise for meat. But when they leased land in front of the lone church in the village to pasture their animals they served up an early bone of contention to some property owners.
Relationships turned really sour in the summer of 2004 after the Surprenants built three housekeeping cabins behind their lake house. While they received permission from the Land Use Regulation Commission to build them, one of the cabins violated LURC’s 75-foot setback from the village’s Main Street.
David Surprenant, who serves as Piscataquis County’s road agent for the community, said the violation was not intentional. The property lines were measured to keep in compliance, he said. Suprenant became aware of the problem, he said, when a LURC official arrived with tape measure in hand, summoned by another property owner.
Surprenant said he verbally requested a variance after the LURC official ordered him to move the cabin that was in violation. He said the variance was denied, even though LURC has granted other variances in the community.Inspecting his boundary lines further as he contemplated his next move, Surprenant said he discovered that a short stretch of Main Street in the village actually was on his property since he found he owns land on both sides of the road. He forwarded that information to Piscataquis County commissioners, who hired a Dover-Foxcroft surveyor to check the boundary lines for the county road.
The surveyor concurred with Surprenant’s interpretation.
Although the road is considered a county way, the county has never been given an easement over their property, Luisa Surprenant said. The couple maintain, therefore, that the section of road in question is not actually a road and that would make the cabin in compliance, she said.
This spring the couple posted a closed-road sign and enclosed the area with an electric fence to pasture their buffalo. When they moved their animals to another one of their pastures a few weeks later, they removed the electric fence but left the sign and erected a low-slung cable across the road on the advice of their attorney, David Gray of Dover-Foxcroft. They did that to ensure that no one would purposely get hurt on the property in an effort to sue them, Luisa Surprenant said.
“It’s not like we’re paying an attorney to force somebody to do something that’s wrong; we’re just doing this to protect our property rights,” David Surprenant said.
The cable remained in place until August, when vandals destroyed it.
The family’s property has been subject to repeated vandalism over the past year. At one point, one of their buffalo took sick and died. The Surprenants think the animal may have been poisoned.
They filed police reports on other isolated acts of vandalism that occurred, including signs stolen from their property, and four flat tires and water in the gasoline tank of one of their vehicles.
Surprenant said that in July he spent a few nights in one of the cabins hoping to catch the vandals. On the night the cable was cut, he heard a noise, he said, saw a flashlight and chased someone for a distance before giving up. In the morning, Surprenant discovered that his cable had been cut into little pieces, which were scattered along the roadway.
“It’s getting to be a violence issue,” Luisa Surprenant said.
Town of conflict
Piscataquis County Sheriff John Goggin is well aware of the turmoil.
“We’re just trying to keep the peace up there,” he said Wednesday. “If any criminal laws are broken, we will address them as they come along.
“Chesuncook used to be a quiet community, and people got along very well for many years, but in the past 21/2 years, we’ve been hearing all the negative complaints and stories,” he said.
“It’s personality-driven,” Goggin said of the conflict. He noted that the late Bert McBurnie, who previously owned the Chesuncook Lake House, served as peacemaker in the community for years.
“He was the glue that kept the community together. I’d have to say that things have deteriorated in the leadership in the community since his death, and there are people fighting to fill that void,” the sheriff said.
The void left by McBurnie, who died in 1997, also is felt by the Piscataquis County commissioners, who are trying their best to resolve the problem, according to County Manager Mike Henderson.
“It’s an ugly situation, and it’s taking a lot of time,” he said. “We’d certainly like to get this resolved for us, for them, for everybody.”
The issue would be resolved by moving the road off Surprenant’s property, which is what the commissioners have voted to do, Henderson said. But because of litigation threatened by some residents on the issue, the commissioners are taking a “wait-and-see” approach, he said.
County officials want to make a road similar to what is there now and believe it will cost about $1,000, which has been budgeted. If it exceeds that, the funds will be taken out of the next year’s budget, the county manager said.
If the project moves forward, Surprenant will do the work, because he is the road agent. Henderson said he sees no conflict of interest in having the village resident do the work.
The commissioners recognize that moving the road is unpopular with some residents because a gravel pit they use would have to be filled in, Henderson said. Those same individuals also say the move is a waste of their tax dollars.
“We feel it’s a waste of taxpayers’ money because the road has been used for more than 50 years and should remain there,” Smart of the camp owners association said. He has asked the commissioners to appoint him as road agent when Surprenant’s term expires in June 2006.
Camp owners Francis and Sandy Henry of Norridgewock, who use the road to get their vehicles to a camp they are building, feel the Surprenants are trying to crowd out the longtimers. Sandy Henry, who has spent summers in Chesuncook for 55 years, said her roots go back to the beginning of the village.
“We ought to have a sign, ‘town of conflict, the way life shouldn’t be,'” she said.
Francis Henry said he had to push Surprenant’s vehicle out of the way recently to get to the gravel pit and later was advised by a game warden that he would be arrested if he trespassed on the road again. He, too, is against moving the road.
“If a road has been used for 20 years or more, it’s a road – it’s a no-brainer,” the camp owner said. He said Surprenant is using the county and property owners to fight LURC. “LURC has tried to work with him, and we’ve tried to work with him,” he said.
Scott Rollins, LURC’s division manager for permitting and compliance, said Wednesday that allowing a variance in Surprenant’s case for a cabin would be “near impossible.” LURC has an enforcement and compliance policy that is followed in such matters. There are times LURC allows a nonconformity with huge restrictions when there is little else that can be done to resolve the issue, but Surprenant can move his building, Rollins said.
Only two variances have ever been issued in Chesuncook, and those were in 1980, both allowable under more lenient regulations.
LURC officials also are not convinced, unlike the commissioners, that the road section belongs to Surprenant, Rollins said.
Moving the road is “certainly a way to resolve the [cabin] issue,” although LURC has not made that request to anyone and wouldn’t get involved in that matter, he said. Nor has LURC ever requested that the road be closed, as some residents were told.
“LURC has never condoned or said that closing the road is the way to resolve the issue,” he said.
Until the issue has been resolved, Rollins said, LURC has an active enforcement case against Surprenant who was ordered to be in compliance by September 2004. As part of the settlement agreement, there are penalties that will be imposed, he said.
Surprenant and his wife, who do have their supporters in the village, both recognize they are facing penalties from LURC but are sure that in the end the commissioners will move the road to settle the matter. They said they are amazed that so much controversy has been generated about moving a small road a few feet.
As are others in the village.”I don’t see an issue with [moving the road]; I think people are making a mountain out of a molehill,” camp owner Mikaitis of Atlantic Highlands, N.J., said during a recent interview at his summer camp.
“There’s a lot of jealousy, a lot of envy – the haves and the have-nots,” he said of those who frequent Chesuncook.
Mikaitis said he is thinking about withdrawing from the association because of the “foolishness.” It’s Surprenant’s land; he should be able to do want he wants to it, he said.
“A small village works well only to the extent that people respect each other and mind their own business,” said Mikaitis’ wife, Susan.
The Surprenants agree.
“I just want to raise my family and conduct my business without being scrutinized about everything I do,” Luisa Surprenant said. “We’re not going anywhere; we gave up everything to move here.”
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