As the Land Use Regulation Commission begins its deliberations next week on Plum Creek Timber Co.’s development plan for the Moosehead Lake area, three big questions should guide their consideration: Is the proposed development appropriate for the region? Is it in the right places? Is it appropriately offset by conservation?
Addressing these questions will keep the focus on whether the plan — for hundreds of house lots and two resorts — meets LURC criteria for development. These include a demonstrated need for the development and knowledge that the change will have no adverse impacts on existing uses and resources. Conservation must also compensate for development.
Ensuring appropriate conservation is especially important because the proposal has become confused with Plum Creek’s insistence that a private easement and purchase agreement be considered along with the development plans. Commissioners must be careful to keep separate the conservation that is required by the type of rezoning request Plum Creek has made and the voluntary easement, for which Plum Creek will be paid $35 million.
If LURC members feel there is too much development, they must either scale it back or require that more land be set aside. If they feel some development is in the wrong areas, they must either move it to a more appropriate area or remove it from the plan.
Nearly three years ago, Plum Creek first applied to LURC to rezone more than 20,000 acres near Moosehead Lake to allow for development as part of a lake concept plan, which allows the company to develop faster than under other LURC rules but requires compensatory conservation. Since then the plan has been revised several times.
One resort was moved from a more remote area to near the existing downhill ski area, nearly half the development proposed for shorefront lands and remote ponds was moved elsewhere and the amount and location of the land required to be set aside for conservation has improved.
On the other hand, the number of house lots — 975 — has remained constant and the development still sprawls over an area stretching from Kokadjo to near Jackman. A conservation framework, a private agreement to preserve more than 300,000 acres negotiated by Plum Creek and the Nature Conservancy, Forest Society of Maine and Appalachian Mountain Club, still hinges on LURC approval of the development proposal.
Studies have shown that Maine would benefit from more high-end tourism offerings like those included in the Plum Creek plan. Such development, however, must be in the right place and of the right scale so as not to ruin the natural character that draws tourists to the area.
Analysis by state and federal natural resource agencies suggests the character will be degraded by the proposed development. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and other agencies submitted written comments last year in which they concluded habitat will be lost for loons, bald eagles and Canada lynx; fishing quality will be lowered; and recreational access to the woods will be reduced.
Plum Creek is to be commended for offering a vision for tourism and economic development in the Moosehead Lake region in the absence of a state plan. Its vision, however, is only one of many possible scenarios. LURC must decide if it is the right one.