A Superior Court ruling sending Plum Creek’s controversial Moosehead Lake development project back to regulators offers a fresh opportunity to improve the plan. The Land Use Regulation Commission must ignore the loud and competing voices and help Plum Creek see the need to present a smaller, more environmentally sensitive proposal. Failing that, LURC must give the project a thumbs-up or thumbs-down as it is proposed, or re-proposed, not as they think it should be.
In his ruling, the judge did not comment on the substance of the plan but cited the unusual steps LURC took to help the proposal pass muster. Essentially, LURC staffers took Plum Creek’s rezoning request and rewrote the proposal so commissioners found it palatable. The commission failed to hold hearings on that revised plan, at which opponents should have been able to comment, Judge Thomas Humphrey wrote. Those opponents are plaintiffs in the challenge: RESTORE: The North Woods, The Forest Ecology Network and the Natural Resources Council of Maine.
There are problems with the plan, or at least portions that are less than desirable. One is the scattered nature of the development; opponents pleaded with Plum Creek to give up the Lily Bay area development and consolidate the project on the west side of the lake.
Another problem is that Plum Creek was given credit for conserving land that it was paid to protect; the regulations clearly require conservation offsets that are compensatory in nature.
And the market demand for 975 house lots was not demonstrated when the project first was pitched in 2005, and market conditions have changed dramatically since then, further calling the housing need into question.
Since the project required a rezoning by LURC, the regulators clearly were in the driver’s seat. They proceeded not as if they were poised to deny the request or to set an impossibly high approval threshold, but rather in a collaborative effort to make the project work. Though many might applaud this approach, it often results in harming both the developer and opponents. The developer may feel it has been blackmailed into making changes, and the opponents conclude that denial never was seriously considered.
Conservation Commissioner Bill Beardsley’s reaction to the ruling is hyperbolic and disrespects the process. He called the court’s decision “a tragedy” and “one more step in undermining Maine’s tradition of private property.” The law clearly gives LURC jurisdiction over that private property, which required permission to rezone for the project to proceed, so such comments from the department head overseeing LURC are troubling.
He also is wrong in saying the ruling is “not about the environment.” The 975 house lots and two large resort facilities will alter the landscape in a big way; how much of that impact is worth absorbing is an open question.
But Commissioner Beardsley is correct in lamenting the loss of nearly 400,000 acres of conserved forest and the economic opportunities if the project is abandoned or LURC denies it without cause.
LURC must assess the project with fresh eyes. It must summon the finesse to nudge the developer to come back with a plan that better fits the Moosehead Lake region.