May 27, 2018
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Watching Plum Creek Rise

The sun rises over the mountains east of Moosehead Lake in this view from the summit of Big Moose Mountain near Greenville in 2004.

The Plum Creek proposal for the Moosehead Lake region that won state approval 18 months ago will be a bellwether for Maine. Both the housing and resort portions of the plan lie dormant at the moment, owing to court challenges and the anemic economy. By the end of the decade, though, what blooms around Maine’s largest lake — and what doesn’t — will point to the sort of future the state can expect.

The relative success of the project, the largest ever of its kind in Maine, will play out across several important measures. They include population growth, the role Maine and its recreational regions play for the rest of New England and the Northeast, and the extent to which the state economy can bank on tourism.

The way the project was configured itself was telling. Plum Creek, the largest private landowner in the country, is a timber and pulp harvesting company that in recent years has developed or sold some property for recreation and housing. The Maine project includes two resorts and almost 1,000 house lots. The Land Use Regulation Commission agreed to rezone more than 10,000 acres around the lake to make the development possible. In concessions designed to sweeten the bid for the rezoning, the company agreed to protect 400,000 acres of its land from development largely through the use of conservation easements.

So Plum Creek is banking on many people traveling to the remote Moosehead region to stay in hotels. Given the cost of the project, many of those people will be upper-middle-class or wealthy out-of-staters. This continues a tradition in Maine that dates back 125 years or more. It is typically a seasonal and low-impact use. If both resorts are built, this bodes well for efforts to lure tourist spending away from the coast.

The second component, the 975 house lots, represents a new wrinkle for marketing Maine. Again, given the likely cost of the houses, buyers will be well-heeled out-of-staters. The majority probably will be second homes, meaning they will stand empty for much of the year. This trend already is playing out in some coastal towns, where more and more driveways are empty and houses are dark through the winter months.

If even a third of the housing component is built and sold by 2020, Maine will have taken a step toward becoming Vacation Home Land. Houses, wells and septic systems, lawns and subdivision roads have far more environmental impact than a resort, even those as large as the Samoset or Bar Harbor Regency. The housing development surely will create economic activity, but if successful, it will point to a future where year-round residents serve the wealthy seasonal residents and the dynamic of towns like Greenville change.

Again, this has an antecedent in Maine. But the gilded age did not create a climate in Maine that fostered local entrepreneurs and innovators.

Lastly, the Plum Creek development relies on conserved lands. A national land development company concluded that protecting the wild nature of an area such as Moosehead is key to its success. This should give pause to those who scoff and bristle at Roxanne Quimby’s land conservation efforts.

Plum Creek’s success or failure must be monitored closely by those who care about Maine’s future.

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