My Turn: A crucial moment for Winnipesaukee’s Farm Island

For the Monitor
Published: 7/14/2019 12:25:13 AM

The future of Farm Island on Lake Winnipesaukee is not a NIMBY issue; it’s a preservation and protection issue.

Neighbors of one of the few large uninhabited islands remaining in New Hampshire’s biggest lake are not saying “not in my backyard”; they’re asking, “Do we know what we’re doing?”

The Tuftonboro Planning Board on Thursday is set to consider a proposal to develop a pristine property without first determining the impact a 12-parcel subdivision would have on a fragile loon population, water quality in nearby 19-Mile Bay, and the experience of boys at Camp Belknap who paddle canoes from basecamp on the Tuftonboro shore every summer to sleep under the stars on the 7.5 acres of Farm Island that the 116-year-old YMCA camp already owns.

The 13.3 unspoiled acres at issue have been owned by generations of the Winchester family since 1905. The uninhabited summer house built by Maria and George Winchester in 1906, the only dwelling ever erected on the island, still stands. In the 19th century, farmers used the island to pasture sheep and to keep cows and pigs. A well-preserved stone foundation at the southeast end of the island is a reminder of Winnipesaukee’s role in the agricultural history of the Lakes Region. The artifacts in its soil speak to a time when the lake itself was long the preserve of local Abenaki tribes.

“Farm Island is a valuable resource for archeological sites and provides a high degree of archeological clarity for well preserved and intact terrestrial and submerged pre-contact Native American and post-contact European American archeological resources, potentially spanning thousands of years of human occupation,” according to a report prepared this month by Victoria Bunker, an archeological consultant, for Camp Belknap. “This degree of integrity at diverse sites of multiple time periods is rare,” she wrote, maybe even worthy of a slot on the State or National Register of Historic Places.

The potential loss of that history and this natural resource to multiple septic systems and private docks has prompted an outcry from those who love the lake and its more than 260 islands. More than 200 people have signed a petition opposing the subdivision of Farm Island, now owned by three brothers, Donald, David and John Winchester.

No one disputes the right of the Winchester brothers to profit from the sale of their personal inheritance. But when private property is entangled with the public good the calculus is not so simple. The signatories to the petition opposing the sale of Farm Island to two inexperienced developers are asking only that the Planning Board do its due diligence and delay any decision until a complete environmental assessment is conducted of the proposed project.

The Winchesters are not without options should the planning board reject or delay the pending subdivision proposal. Camp Belknap has offered to purchase and preserve the 13.3 acres on Farm Island now for sale. Had it been financially able, Camp Belknap would have bought the entire island in 2010 when it purchased 7.5 acres. It is in a better position to do so now, according to Seth M. Kassels, the executive director of Camp Belknap.

The island is still listed with the Multiple Listing Service as “active, under contract” with Maxfield Real Estate for $1,495,000, down from an original asking price of $2 million.

“That’s a large amount of money for Camp Belknap,” Kassels acknowledged, “but if this current purchase and sale agreement were to fall apart, Camp Belknap, with the help of our neighbors and alumni, would make every effort to purchase the island with the goal of preserving it for generations to come.”

Residents of nearby Chase Island report that developers are not alone in staking a claim to the sought-after wooded preserve. In recent days, they have seen a bald eagle among the pines that blanket Farm Island, fishing in 19-Mile Bay.

Maybe it’s a sign.

(Eileen McNamara, a former Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for the “Boston Globe,” is the director of the journalism program at Brandeis University. She lives in Moultonborough.)

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