Lake homes overtaking camps on northern Aroostook lakes

10 months ago

SINCLAIR, Maine — An influx of people are buying camps and lake homes in northern Aroostook County since the COVID-19 pandemic made working remotely common and the demand for real estate in Maine has been on the rise.

Aroostook County Administrator Ryan Pelletier said he has seen this growth firsthand, pointing out there were easily from 10 to 15 properties for sale in the lake communities on any given day before the pandemic. Now, there are very few visible for-sale signs, he said, and there are more permanent residences rather than seasonal camps.

Pelletier, who lives on Pelletier Island on Long Lake in St. Agatha, said there has been tremendous growth since he moved there 20 years ago. There were roughly six permanent residents in the early 2000s, but now there are approximately 60 permanent residents and about the same number of seasonals, he said.

The growth has been slower coming to Aroostook County, but it reflects what has happened in other parts of the state near popular bodies of water, where second homes are in high demand, especially since COVID. Along with the growth has come increased need for services.

“I don’t know if you can call them camps anymore,” Pelletier said. “Now, even when someone is building a ‘camp’ for seasonal or occasional use, they’re really more like lake houses more than anything. Very large homes are being built on lakes (in northern Aroostook) now. And they’re not your traditional camp.”

Lakeside homes and camps near bodies of water such as Long Lake, pictured here, have become increasingly popular in recent years. (Chris Bouchard | St. John Valley Times)

In northern Maine, there were spikes in permits issued for new dwellings and upgrades to existing buildings adjacent to Long and Cross lakes in the Fish River chain of lakes that are popular for fishing and recreation, and Madawaska Lake in 2020, according to data from the state’s Land Use Planning Commission. The LUPC controls construction and renovations in unorganized townships.

LUPC officials stressed that permitting trends only loosely reflect development trends, and that the associated body of water is often manually entered into their data, so there may be more upgrades and new dwellings at these locations that have not been recorded yet. 

There was one new dwelling in each of 2018 and 2019 on Long Lake; five in 2020, which broke down to three on Cross Lake and two on Madawaska Lake; and one each year in 2021 and 2022 on Cross Lake. As of July 31 this year, one new dwelling has been built on Cross Lake, according to LUPC data.

Expansions and upgrades on the three lakes have been more prolific. There were eight in 2018 and 13 in 2019. But data from 2020 through 2023 shows a sharp increase. There were 21 in 2020, 25 in 2021, 24 in 2022 and as of July 31 this year, there were 22.

Marci Wilde, who owns St. Peter’s Country Store in Sinclair, said she has also noticed more new visitors in recent years. The iconic store is the only one for several miles on Route 161 in the St. John Valley.

The store began as a farmstand more than 120 years ago, and continues to be a lifeline for many who have camps in the Sinclair area. And Wilde, who purchased the store in 2021, said she has also noticed more unique customers in recent years.

It’s hard to quantify just how many people stop by the store each year, but she said they easily see thousands annually.

Since purchasing the store, she has made several additions to accommodate the growing number of customers. She now rents out ATVs and holds a monthly flea market, for example, and she often goes to a large retail store to stock up on things like WD-40 and motor oil as a convenience to her customers, she said

Wilde said she has noticed a mix of people from Maine and other states. One of her employees who has a home in Woodland bought a local camp and now lives pretty much year round in Sinclair. Another moved to the St. John Valley from Massachusetts and bought a house on one of the lakes.

She said another young couple recently moved from Massachusetts and bought a camp from someone who decided to move downstate. Of the couples who have moved to the area, often one person will have a local job while the other works remotely, she said.

“There’s a lot of remote access that has given people the ability to be here,” she said. “It’s one of the good things that came out of the pandemic.”

And while camp homes of the past may not have had electricity or running water, Pelletier said newly built lake homes and camps in northern Aroostook have all the amenities one would want in their primary home. He said he was not aware of any new camps or lakeside homes in the area that don’t have both electricity and high speed internet.

As happens in other parts of the state, some people are using lakeside homes as short-term rentals via apps like Airbnb and VRBO, he said.

St. Peter’s Country Store also rents out three lodging units, which Wilde said are typically more popular in the winter when people are snowmobiling.

Local services are affected too. The U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee recently approved $2.25 million in federal funds to build a new Sinclair fire station for North Lakes Fire & Rescue, a department which also has stations at Madawaska Lake and Cross Lake. 

North Lakes Chief Darren Woods, who also serves as the Aroostook County Emergency Management Agency director, said the funding is specifically to update the department’s nearly 80-year-old facility, but the changes also will help them serve newcomers to the area.

“The update is really to make us more modern, however we are seeing across all our districts, people building bigger and more costly camps and houses,” he said. “And we’re just trying to make sure we can offer them the best protection that we can for the budget that we maintain.”

Pelletier said it looks like activity is continuing to trend upward near northern Aroostook’s lakes.

“There’s a lot of new construction,” he said. “The golf course on the St. David side of Long Lake was recently bought and that’s been completely refurbished. There’s a new bar and grill called the Long Lake Bar & Grill that just opened up last fall. Business seems to be really doing well up at the lake.”