BANGOR, Maine — State regulators approved Plum Creek’s controversial housing and resort plan for the Moosehead Lake region on Wednesday, capping an intense, four-year public debate about economic development and land preservation in Maine’s fabled North Woods.
The Land Use Regulation Commission voted unanimously to rezone land allowing Plum Creek to develop 975 house lots and two large resorts near Maine’s largest lake. But in a related deal that was key to commission approval, Plum Creek must now complete a conservation package permanently protecting more than 400,000 acres of forestland in the region.
“You have got to find a balance, and after four years of going through this process, I am hoping that we have struck a proper balance,” said Luke Muzzy, a Greenville native and key architect of the plan with Plum Creek.
Muzzy noted, however, that LURC approval of the concept plan is only the first of several approvals Plum Creek must receive before building anything.
Not surprisingly, opponents blasted LURC for allowing Seattle-based Plum Creek to proceed with the biggest development plan in Maine history.
Six protesters were removed by Bangor police and subsequently arrested for disrupting the LURC proceeding. Several conservation groups predicted the houses, resorts, new roads and additional traffic would harm wildlife and spoil the natural beauty of the largest undeveloped area east of the Mississippi.
Two organizations, the Forest Ecology Network and RESTORE: The North Woods, announced plans to appeal the decision to Superior Court.
“This is a massive, sprawling development in one shot, and it will completely alter the character of the North Woods and the regions around northern Moosehead Lake,” said Jonathan Carter, director of the Forest Ecology Network. Plum Creek’s plan is unprecedented on many levels.
The proposal spawned the largest regulatory review ever in Maine, involving more than 300 hours of public hearings and workshops plus thousands of public comments. It also triggered the second-biggest conservation deal in U.S. history — a package of deals permanently protecting more than 400,000 acres. The issue also divided the state’s populace like few others in recent memory.
Supporters view the planned growth as an avenue toward job growth and economic development in one of Maine’s most impoverished areas. At the same time, they argue, the massive conservation deals will prevent haphazard development and support the region’s two leading industries: forestry and nature-based tourism.
Greenville town manager John Simko said many businesses are closing or downsizing. New subdivisions and camp development will happen no matter what, Simko said, but Plum Creek is offering planned growth plus the region’s first resorts in years.
“Nobody else is stepping up and saying there will be a major resort,” Simko said. “What will that do for the region? Well, hopefully it opens up a market that is not there now.”
Opponents, meanwhile, fear the vacation homes and luxury resorts will generate few steady, well-paying jobs while ruining the very beauty that has drawn generations of visitors to the region.
“We still believe this is going to significantly degrade the natural character of the Moosehead Lake region and that LURC should not have approved it,” said Cathy Johnson, North Woods project director with the Natural Resources Council of Maine.
Even if the appeal is unsuccessful, however, it will likely be months or even years before any construction begins. The company must receive individual subdivision permits from LURC for the 975 house lots, located in several designated “development zones” around Moosehead.
The company or future developers must also submit detailed plans for the two resorts, located on Big Moose Mountain west of Greenville and on Lily Bay.
“We expect you to do all of this, and we expect you to do it right,” Bart Harvey, LURC’s chairman and a Greenville native, told company officials during Wednesday’s meeting. “You are going to be under a microscope on this.”
The land preservation provisions negotiated by Plum Creek and three major conservation groups were key to winning commissioners’ support.
Plum Creek has 45 days from Wednesday to finish that package in order for the development to proceed. Plum Creek was required by LURC to donate conservation easements on 97,000 acres in order to offset the impacts of development. Additionally, the deal requires Plum Creek to sell conservation easements on another 266,000 acres in the region. The Forest Society of Maine will oversee those easements.
In addition to prohibiting future development, those easements guarantee public access to the land for hunting, wildlife watching and other recreational activities while maintaining the land as a working forest. Finally, while not required by LURC, The Nature Conservancy and the Appalachian Mountain Club will purchase another 41,500 acres from Plum Creek.
Supporters also point out that the roughly 17,000 acres of “development zones” constitute only 3 percent of the total plan area; the remainder is permanent conservation land.
“That’s why we went into this from the beginning, because we realized the potential,” said Tom Rumpf, associate state director of The Nature Conservancy in Maine. “It isn’t often when you get opportunities like this.”
“That, to me, is going to be an extraordinary legacy of this decision,” commissioner Edward Laverty said. “I just hope we got the development part right.”
Plum Creek’s plans have sparked numerous protests in the past, and Wednesday was no different.
Just as the commissioners were preparing to vote, several protesters associated with the environmental activist group Maine Earth First! rushed to the front of the room and locked arms with one another while denouncing LURC’s process as well as Plum Creek.
Police quickly moved in to clear the protesters, most of whom were carried from the room after refusing to cooperate.
“Just so you know, Plum Creek, this is just the beginning,” shouted one protester as she was being removed from the room. “We will be here every step of the way.”
The following protestors were charged with disorderly conduct and criminal trespassing: Jessica Dowling, 28, of Searsmont; Megan Gilmartin, 25, of Corinth; James Freeman, 60, of Verona Island; Emily Posner, 28, of Montville; Ryan Clarke, 27, of Corinth; and Christian Neils, 32, of Appleton.
Neils also faces charges for resisting arrest and carrying a concealed knife.