As the Land Use Regulation Commission completes its deliberations in coming weeks 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 re-sources. Conservation must also compensate for development.
More than 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. Plum Creek proposed 91,000 acres of conservation offsets.
Last year, some LURC members indicated they felt this acreage was inadequate. They had three options: They could have required more land to be conserved; scaled back the development or required a combination of the two.
Instead, they accepted a private, paid conservation agreement as part of the required offset.
After submitting its development plan, Plum Creek signed a private agreement with The Nature Conservancy, Forest Society of Maine and Appalachian Mountain Club to preserve nearly 350,000 acres near the proposed development. The company would be paid $35 million for a 270,000-acre easement and two land purchases totaling nearly 75,000 acres.
This agreement will enhance wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities. But it needed to remain separate from the rezoning application.
This was highlighted by Plum Creek’s last-minute request to cancel the easement portion of the plan if its development plans are rejected, terminated or tied up in court. It is likely that conservation groups will appeal LURC’s approval of the plan.
Instead, LURC staff recommended that the conservation zoning remain in place for at least five years if the development plan is dropped. This would give LURC time to develop zoning for the Moosehead Lake region or make other arrangements to conserve the land. Zoning for the region was years overdue when Plum Creek announced its development plans.
This is a reasonable middle ground, but it would have been unnecessary if LURC had followed through with keeping the two deals separate.
If LURC members feel there is too much development, it is not too late for them to 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.