Q & A with Steve Chandler about New Gloucester land donation

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NEW GLOUCESTER — Steve Chandler says that his family has owned land in New Gloucester since before the American Revolution, and after years of deliberation, has decided to donate more than 2,000 acres in town to the Maine Woodland Owners land trust.

It was a joint decision from Chandler, his wife Natalie, and cousins Charles and Bertha Chandler, who currently manage the family’s land holdings under the Chandler Brothers name.

The process of transferring the land could take several years, Steve Chandler said and will involve between 2,000 and 2,500 acres from various Chandler properties around New Gloucester. The total acreage of the gift will depend on how many of the lots Maine Woodland Owners decides to take ownership of and manage, he said.

Chandler, who worked around the country for the U.S. Forest Service before returning to New Gloucester in retirement, spoke about the land donation in an interview with the Lakes Region Weekly.

Q: What will the land be used for as part of the Maine Woodland Owners trust? Will it continue to be harvested land? Will it be open to recreation?

A: Our primary objective has always been to keep the land undeveloped, and secondly to keep it as a working forest. They’re the best organization to meet those needs for us over the long term. So yes, the land is open to public recreation, traditional uses — hiking, walking, fishing, hunting. We don’t favor the use of motorized vehicles but we do allow a snowmobile trail — helps link that up across the town.

Q: Had you worked with Maine Woodland Owners previously?

A: Yes. They formed, I think it was about 40 years ago … It’s a very small organization, and it’s primarily run through the use of volunteers. But most of the people who contribute to the organization are small landowners like we are, with a lot of professionals, as well, involved. So they are very familiar with managing tracks of land like this. And after much discussion, their objectives and our objectives are very close together, so made it a pretty simple choice …

There are other routes that people can take as well: you can go with easements, you can gift land to larger organizations that are well-known to the public. The problem with that type of gifting is that most of those groups require a large stipend to go with the land in order to manage it, and that’s a significant difference between them and Maine Woodland Owners.

Maine Woodland Owners will take the land, they will manage it the same way we have to generate income, which will pay the taxes and pay for their operating expenses. That relieves us of the burden of, not only giving the land away, but giving them money we don’t have.

Q: How difficult a decision was it to give this land away that’s been in your family for so long?

A: Well jokingly amongst ourselves, we said it took twelve years to make the decision … It was not an easy decision to make. I mean, the land has been around with us for a very, very long time.

Q: Is there any one reason that you made this decision? Was there a generational challenge with more and more people involved? 

A: We wanted to be able to meet our long term objectives. There are four of us: there’s Natalie and myself, and I have two cousins Charlie and Bertha. They have no children at this point in time, and we do. Part of the discussion over a long period of time was, do we split the partnership, do we split the lands. Do Natalie and I turn our land over to our children, which is what we’ve had in mind for quite some time. But when we got down closer to making a decision, we had long discussions with our children, and neither one live in this state. And they realized they would never come back to Maine, and they agree with the long term objectives, and so they agreed that probably the best thing to do would be turn it over to an organization that would meet the long term objectives. So that’s where we ended up.

Q: Were you worried giving the size of the land and the character of the town, about large scale development being added to the property? Was it a primary concern? 

A: Not primary — a concern, definitely. New Gloucester is somewhat unique — we’re very fortunate that the Shaker’s have committed their lands to an easement. We have in town, October Corporation, or Pineland if you want to call it that, so between the three of us including Chandler Brothers, we own a significant portion of the town that’s likely to be undeveloped, and that’s quite unusual for this part of the state.

Q: Do you ever have developers calling interested in the land? 

All the time, and it get’s very strange. But generally speaking, the town office knows enough to tell people that inquire — because usually, people inquire at the town office, “who owns this land?” — and they say, “well, good luck. You’re you’re not going to get a positive response.”

It get’s pretty strange at times. This year, for example … we had a request from a company in Virginia wanting to buy 500 acres to build a large solar farm in New Gloucester. So yes, there’s requests. We’ve dealt with Poland Spring — Poland Spring has drilled test wells and decided to go elsewhere. So yeah, you’re always dealing with somebody.

Q: How much time and effort do you think you’ve put into managing this land over the years?

A: How much time? There’s no way of measuring it. That’s one of the reasons our kids realized that they couldn’t do it. What we started doing was sharing our emails on daily business with out two partners that don’t live in town, and our children started to realize that this isn’t a simple thing to do. Most people don’t realize that, there’s a lot of activity that’s involved in managing a piece of land. And they way we’ve managed it is different than most people do it …

My uncle and my father were very close, and after World War II they realized that they needed to try to return this land to what they remembered as youngsters in the early 1900s. There was a big impact on this property during the Depression — it was cut very harshly. So they started in their generation to restore this land, and we’ve continued to do the same thing.

Q: How much of that family history propelled you on your professional career path with the Forest Service? 

A: All of it. I was brought up on the land. Spent time with my father an uncle in the woods, as did my cousins. Grew to appreciate it, led me into being a forester, and there you go.

Q: Has there been any formal agreement signed yet with Maine Woodland Owners?

A: Nope, this is pure handshake. A matter of trust — you don’t find that much anymore. It will get formal when we make — of course, the deeds. And the way they operate will be different than most conservation groups would operate. There will be no deed restrictions on any lot that we sell them, but on the ones that we have strong feelings about, they will write what they call a letter of direction. We will do that jointly with them, and they will follow that letter of direction.

Q: Have you gotten any push back from folks in town? 

A: No — I think the only push back is some people thought perhaps that taxes wouldn’t be paid on the land, that it was going to a non-profit. They are a non-profit, but they operate — like I said, they pay their taxes and they try to do everything they can to fit into the community.

Natalie and Steve Chandler, together with Steve’s cousins Charles and Bertha Chandler, have decided to donate more than 2,000 acres in New Gloucester to the Maine Woodland Owner’s land trust.

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