This coming Wednesday, the first chapter in one of the largest and costliest battles over Maine’s North Woods will likely come to a close when state regulators vote on Plum Creek’s Moosehead Lake development plan.
The Land Use Regulation Commission is widely expected to grant Plum Creek’s request to rezone tens of thousands of acres, thereby enabling the company to develop nearly 1,000 house lots and two large resorts near Maine’s largest lake.
An affirmative vote on the LURC staff’s recommendation also will trigger the second-largest conservation deal in U.S. history, encompassing roughly 400,000 acres of forestland throughout the Moosehead region.
LURC is scheduled to meet at 1 p.m. at the Bangor Ramada Inn at 357 Odlin Road. The meeting is open to the public, but the commission is not expected to accept public comments.
Virtually no one expects the vote to end the controversy or the legal maneuvering by Plum Creek’s numerous opponents, however.
An appeal is pretty much guaranteed, which could delay any construction by months or even years. If the appeal to the Maine Superior Court is unsuccessful, Plum Creek would still be required to develop detailed subdivision and resort plans plus receive individual LURC permits before anything is built.
“I anticipate the workload is hardly over for the staff,” LURC’s director, Catherine Carroll, said recently. “Should the commission accept the recommendation of the staff, we are probably talking 15 years of a lot of hard work.”
It’s been a long road to this point for all parties.
Seattle-based Plum Creek first unveiled its proposal in the spring of 2005 and immediately encountered criticism and strong opposition. The concept plan has since changed significantly after several company revisions and hundreds of hours of public hearings, workshops and deliberative sessions with the commissioners.
But the proposal has stayed the same in several crucial areas, which helps explain why Mainers remain deeply divided over the plan.
First, the number of house lots allowed by the rezoning held steady at 975, although the company agreed to relocate hundreds of lots away from shorelines and remote ponds. Plum Creek would have 30 years to develop those lots.
Secondly, the final recommendation would still allow Plum Creek to develop a resort at Lily Bay, one of the more popular parts of Moosehead Lake.
LURC and Plum Creek insist any resort would be designed to minimize impacts on Lily Bay itself and the neighboring state park, all the while helping generate much-needed economic activity for the financially troubled region. But critics predict the resort could spoil the very beauty and sense of “remoteness” that draws tourists to the area.
Lastly and more generally, Plum Creek’s plan remains the largest development proposal in Maine history. The fact that this historic development plan is taking place in a storied part of Maine’s North Woods beloved by generations of visitors — and chronicled by figures such as Henry David Thoreau — means it will likely always stir passionate debate.
“What this process has done more than anything else is put on the table an understanding of how unique this area really is,” said Bruce Kidman, director of communications and government relations for The Nature Conservancy.
The Nature Conservancy, along with the Appalachian Mountain Club and the Forest Society of Maine, played a critical role in helping put Plum Creek on the path toward plan approval.
The three organizations negotiated the $30 million conservation deal that will permanently protect more than 300,000 acres in the region from future development. The Forest Society of Maine will hold conservation easements on 266,000 acres while The Nature Conservancy and AMC will purchase 41,500 acres from Plum Creek.
Plum Creek also has agreed to “donate” conservation easements on another 97,000 acres to meet LURC’s requirement that the company offset the impacts of the planned development. That suite of conservation has emerged as the linchpin of Plum Creek’s entire plan in the eyes of the commission.
Supporters claim the conservation plan — second in size only to the preservation of Pingree family land, also in Maine — will permanently protect this vast area from development. At the same time, the easements guarantee public access to the land for hunting, wildlife watching and other outdoor pursuits while maintaining the vast majority of the land as a working forest.
Alan Hutchinson, executive director of the Forest Society of Maine, said he is “extremely pleased” with the “conservation framework.” Rather than setting a dangerous precedent, as some have suggested, the agreement sets a high bar for future development concept plans, Hutchinson said.
“I think the most remarkable thing here is what LURC has established as a blueprint going forward,” he said.
However, environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Council of Maine, Maine Audubon, RESTORE: The North Woods and the Native Forest Network contend the easements allow too many industrial uses on the conservation land.
They also accuse LURC of allowing Plum Creek to profit twice, first by selling the conservation easements and land for $30 million and then by selling house lots.
The Moosehead Region Futures Committee, a grassroots group of Moosehead-area residents and landowners heavily involved in the LURC process, described the final plan as “merely a somewhat better version of a bad plan.”
“Plum Creek’s plan still misses the true natural and cultural character of our region,” the group’s leaders said in a statement released in advance of Wednesday’s meeting. “It fails to honor the values and needs of our struggling local communities. It offers inadequate protection to the wildlife and water resources that belong to all Maine people.”
LURC held public hearings around the state and received thousands of comments on the plan. Carroll, LURC’s director, estimated that the commissioners themselves have sat through more than 300 hours of meetings on Plum Creek, and that figure does not include time spent reading boxes upon boxes of written material. LURC staff and consultants have spent thousands of hours on the application.
“I think it has been a fair, thorough and impartial process,” Carroll said.