TUFTONBORO — Folks of a certain age can recall when large swaths of the Lake Winnipesaukee shoreline — especially along the northern part of the lake — were undeveloped. It’s now hard to find a view of the lake that doesn’t include a dock or other sign of human residence, which is one of the reasons cited by the many opponents of a plan to put 12 house sites on Farm Island, a mostly undeveloped 20-acre island in 19 Mile Bay.
Farm Island, named for a period when it was used to raise livestock, has been in the ownership of the Winchester family for more than a century, but brothers David, Donald and John Winchester are ready to divest their interests in the property.
In fact, they sold a 7.5-acre parcel to the nearby YMCA Camp Belknap about a decade ago. The Winchesters, via their real estate agent, hoped that the nonprofit camp would buy the rest of the land, a little more than 13 acres, and on at least a couple of occasions notified the camp that they were reducing the price of the land. The camp was never in a position to consider purchasing the land, however, so the property was still on the market — last listed for $1.5 million — when Randy Owen and Cynthia Pratt decided to look for their own slice of Lake Winnipesaukee heaven.
Owen and Pratt have a purchase-and-sale agreement with the Winchesters, who have applied to the Tuftonboro Planning Board to subdivide the parcel into 12 home lots.
The proposed subdivision has whipped 19 Mile Bay into maelstrom of public opposition. Those opposed to the plan include environmental organizations that point to the loss of loon habitat and increase in phosphorous and other chemicals such a development might mean for the bay; lakeside homeowners worry that the quiet they enjoy would be lost by adding a dozen more neighbors; and Camp Belknap, whose campers paddle across the bay to spend a night camping in a natural setting, worry about the impact development might have.
Opponents packed a public hearing before the Tuftonboro Planning Board on July 18. The board will again hear opinions on the proposal at a meeting on Aug. 1, which will take place at Tuftonboro Elementary School in anticipation of a heavier turnout than normal. However, the board is not likely to vote on the matter until a later date.
Most opponents are lobbying the Planning Board to deny the site plan so an organization which presumably would leave the island wild could buy it.
“I would much prefer that Camp Belknap be allowed to purchase the land or that the island be put into conservation easement,” wrote Eileen and Charles Deiorio, Tuftonboro residents, in a letter to Planning Board Chair Matt Young. “There are precious few remaining undeveloped shorelines on the lake as you know, and virtually no undeveloped islands of this size, providing a chance for the next generation to experience the kind of waterfront many of us grew up with: fresh beaver activity evident in the spring, nesting birds — there is an active eagle nest on the island this summer — ducks reaching up from the water to pluck blueberries in August. Once Farm is developed, like the Tuftonboro shoreline, it can never be restored to its natural state.”
David Winchester, of Wolfeboro, said Farm Island had been in his family for more than 100 years.
“We held onto it for a long as we could. It’s ridiculous to think that we were going to hold onto it forever,” Winchester said. “We sold the part that Camp Belknap wanted to them. They didn’t want any more. We contacted them numerous times; they didn’t want any more.”
Carol Bush, the Winchesters’ real estate agent, confirmed that she contacted the camp on multiple occasions to announce price reductions. She also said she reached out to a local conservation trust, which didn’t express interest.
The property was initially listed at $2 million, and is currently listed as “under contract” on the Maxfield Real Estate website with an asking price of $1,495,000.
“I think it would be lovely to preserve that property,” Bush said. “It would be so rare. We have few islands like that.”
It’s unfortunate, she said, that it took news of the purchase-and-sale contract to mobilize support for the island’s preservation.
“They had years to buy this place, and they didn’t,” Bush said.
With the contract signed, Winchester said, backing out of the deal would put him and his brothers in legal peril.
“What they want is crazy, and I’ve had enough of it,” Winchester said.
On a recent sunny morning, the water between Camp Belknap’s beaches and Farm Island was filled with boys. Some were sailing, some were paddleboarding, and there was a multi-camp swim meet taking place.
“It’s a quiet bay, where kids can be kids,” said Seth Kassels, co-director at the camp.
Camp Belknap is an independent nonprofit organization affiliated with YMCA, serving boys ages 8-16, some of whom attend on a scholarship. The camp sits on 300 acres, although camp activity mostly takes place on 85 acres. With four two-week sessions and one single week session, there’s total capacity for 1,100 campers, though many choose to stay for multiple sessions.
Kassels said the Camp Belknap life is an unplugged one, giving boys the chance to experience the outdoors, learn more about themselves and make friends without the interference of electronic gadgets. They’ll go home with many of the same memories that campers made a century ago.
But operating a camp that’s been around since 1903 has its challenges, Kassels said. This summer, for example, he had to replace some of the kitchen equipment he had hoped would be able to make it another season before they could be retired.
He has similar concerns about the camp’s wastewater facilities, and is in the process of a campaign to raise $2 million to replace them before they fail.
“It’s not like Camp Belknap sits on a warchest of money,” Kassels said. Buying Farm Island would have been nice, but, when notices from the Winchester’s real estate agent came in, he said he had more critical challenges to address. “We can only move as fast as we can, and we were late.”
Frank Kenison chairs the board of trustees for Camp Belknap. Since word of the purchase-and-sale agreement has gotten out — and especially news about 12 proposed home sites — it seems that there might be an opportunity for the camp to provide an offer if the current agreement falls through.
“It’s a lot of money. We have had a tremendous outpouring of support from abutters and neighbors,” Kenison said. “We are very encouraged by the support that we’ve received. We think that we could raise the money to do the backup offer.”
Whether or not the sale goes through, Kenison said the camp hopes to continue using its seven acres on Farm Island for overnight camping excursions.
“We’ve made an effort to encourage the camping and the trips aspect of the experience over the past several years. It’s an incredible experience. They are on this adventure, it’s a wonderful experience,” Kenison said. “That idea of camping out and being secluded would be difficult if you had 12 homes on the island.”
For much of her life, Cynthia Pratt had a hard time answering the question, “Where are you from?” She grew up in New Jersey, but would spend all of her childhood summers on Winnipesaukee’s Cow Island, and those summer months were more meaningful to her than the rest of the year in New Jersey. So, she started answering that question with, “New Hampshire is my heart home,” she said.
“That’s where my fondest childhood memories came from; that’s when our family came together. It was a place where we came together and bonded,” she said.
Then life took her away from New Hampshire. She got married, had children, got divorced, raised her children to adulthood, and eventually was able to move back to New Hampshire, where she met her current partner, Randy Owen. Owen had also grown up summering on Winnipesaukee, and he also has three adult children.
“It has always been my dream to get back to Winnipesaukee, create the same wonderful experience for my family,” Pratt said. “I know he [Owen] wants the same for his family.”
Pratt and Owen are behind C & R NH Realty Trust, LLC, the name on the subdivision application currently before the Tuftonboro Planning Board. Pratt said it’s upsetting to hear their plan as a destructive force by their potential neighbors.
“Our dream for the property is to try and maintain the tranquility of Farm Island, while being able to create that wonderful family environment that they all get to enjoy on their properties and we enjoyed as children. We just want the same for our families,” she said.
At the center of Farm Island is the remains of a circa-1906 cottage, which Pratt and Owen plan to restore for their personal use. She said they do not plan to market any of the other lots in the near future.
“It is quite a substantial purchase price and quite a substantial price for the project. To invest that kind of money, we do need some sort of security should something happen down the line to Randy or me. The subdivision is more about financial security in the future, should we need that,” she said.
She said that she can see where the opponents of the plan are coming from. After all, both she and they are motivated by the same thing: a love for Lake Winnipesaukee.
“I understand it from their perspective. It’s not that we’re trying to hurt anyone or mess up anyone’s experience, we just want the same experience for our families. The lake is such a magical place,” Pratt said.