Where’s the development? Greenville businesses wonder when Plum Creek’s ambitious plan will become reality
GREENVILLE, Maine — Henry Gilbert loves business and the outdoors and is a big supporter of Plum Creek’s Moosehead Lake housing and resort plan.
Among the most durable businesses in the Moosehead Lake region, Jamieson’s Store and Jamo’s Pizza shop, which Gilbert owns, have been closed for exactly one half-day in the last 66 years, he said. But, when he isn’t working, the 55-year-old Gilbert says he loves to mountain bike, snowmobile and cross-country ski.
Yet even with his love of business and the outdoors, and his admiration for Plum Creek, Gilbert says he doesn’t see the national timber company applying anytime soon to build the housing and resort project, the largest in state history, that the Seattle-based corporation has sought for almost a decade.
“You might see some housing come in here and there,” Gilbert said, “[but] I don’t see how any resort built in the middle of nowhere is going to support itself at this point. We would have to get a lot more people up here.”
Plum Creek proposes to build up to 975 second homes and two resorts near Moosehead Lake in the next 30 years. The Maine Supreme Judicial Court’s denial in March 2012 of an appeal of the Land Use Regulation Commission’s September 2009 vote allowing the rezoning of Plum Creek’s nearly 400,000 acres ended 300 hours of hearings, millions of dollars in legal fees and nearly seven years of debate, apparently clearing the way for the development to proceed.
The biggest question remaining among town businesses: When? When will Plum Creek start applying for building permits?
“Everybody would like to see something start to happen,” said Michael Boutin, owner of Northwoods Outfitters. “If things were happening, there would be more jobs and workers coming into the community.”
Business owners say project construction is hampered by declining population and the area’s depressed real estate market, especially for second homes. Kamp Kamp antique store owner Cheri Goodspeed sells furniture to second homes such as those Plum Creek hopes to build, and that aspect of her business is sluggish, she said.
“Nothing is moving anywhere,” Goodspeed said.
A market like an anchor
The Greenville-area real estate market is like an anchor dragging the ocean floor, said Joe DiAngelo, owner of Century 21 Moose Country Realtors. Occasionally the anchor kicks up, then settles down.
“Everything that we hear is that the market is getting better, and that people are getting back into the game, and that we’re probably in a very special area and people want to be here,” DiAngelo said.
Yet the lingering effect of the recession of 2008 leaves area real estate sales off as much as 30 percent, DiAngelo said. Primary residences worth $700,000 fetch half that in the Northeast region of the country, reducing the equity homeowners could invest in second homes.
“It’s a stream of buyers that we had that we have lost with the loss of value of primary homes,” DiAngelo said, “but I am optimistic. With prices where they are right now, and interest rates at an all-time low, there are still wonderful opportunities to buy.”
Always a 30-year plan
Plum Creek’s plan is far from dead, according to the company. Parts of it already benefit the region, said Luke Muzzy, Plum Creek’s senior land asset manager.
“We repeated over and over that it would be a 30-year plan,” Muzzy said. “People were worried overall that this would be done all at once, and that they would not be ready for it.”
Plum Creek officials have no timeline for seeking building permits, Muzzy said, but they completed a 363,000-acre conservation dea l — the second largest easement package in U.S. history — when the 30-year clock started in May 2012.
Part of a 2 million-acre conservation corridor stretching from the St. John River to Moosehead Lake and Baxter State Park, the easements guarantee sustainable forestry harvesting practices and public access for hunting, hiking, snowmobiling and other recreation, Muzzy said.
“Take a look at things now,” Muzzy said as he drove over a logging road on Plum Creek land north of Lily Bay Mountain. “This is the way it will look forever.”
Trails and affordable housing
Plum Creek and state officials are selecting the first of as many as 67 miles of nature and hiking trails, each at least 15 feet wide, to be built within the 363,000 acres. Trail construction will start next summer and conclude in 2018, said Muzzy and Rex Turner, outdoor recreation planner for the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands.
The new trails will increase access to some of Maine’s most beautiful woods with beginner- and intermediate-level networks rivaling any in the country, Muzzy said.
“For a long time there have been some really exemplary hiking opportunities in the region,” Turner said. “In the long term, it will really package them so that people think about Moosehead as a top destination for a variety of nonmotorized trail activities.”
Plum Creek is allocating $1 million over five years to the trail efforts, Turner said. About $400,000 has been set aside already. The company also is granting permanent easements for 80 miles of new and existing snowmobile trails, Muzzy said.
The company also has set aside 100 acres for affordable housing. In spring 2013, Coastal Enterprises Inc. swapped land it got from Plum Creek with Charles A. Dean Memorial Hospital of Greenville to allow CEI to build affordable housing on 5.5 acres on Spruce Street, said Geno Murray, hospital CEO.
“We have had folks that have not taken jobs in this organization [paying $30,000 or less] because they couldn’t find affordable year-round housing here,” Murray said.
In exchange, the hospital will use 25 acres donated by Plum Creek for high-end housing on Rum Ridge, about three miles east of Greenville.
“We would use parcels of this land as a recruitment tool to try to get physicians here,” Murray said. “We are very hopeful that it will be a successful recruiting tool.”
Plum Creek was immediately controversial here. When the company paid $180 million in 1998 to buy about 905,000 acres of Maine — about 5 percent of the state’s forests — supporters who feared the land becoming a national park lauded it as an environmentally friendly forester.
Others called Plum Creek, which is organized as a real estate investment trust, a “forest liquidator” that would create rural sprawl devastating to the land and the industries that depended upon it.
In 2002, LURC approved the first phase of the company’s plan for 89 house lots on First Roach Pond, east of Moosehead Lake.
Today Plum Creek employs 40 people and 70 contractors working its approximately 878,000 acres in Maine. Plum Creek owns about 6.3 million acres of timberland nationwide, and company shares are traded on the New York Stock Exchange.
Plum Creek’s stock has stagnated under the weight of the recent recession. In November 2007, it sold for $42.96. The same month a year later it fell to $33.11 per share. As of Nov. 13, it sold for $43.56, according to the company’s website.
Opponents lying in wait
A leader of an environmental group that forced the state supreme court decision isn’t surprised that Plum Creek hasn’t sought building permits.
LURC’s rezoning approval “had economic value to [Plum Creek],” said Jym St. Pierre, Maine director of Restore: The North Woods, “and it always seemed that this is what they wanted. Whether they were going to exercise the option to develop it was always a question.”
An independent assessment of the value of Plum Creek’s holdings wasn’t available, but not counting its office building on Plum Creek Street, the company owns 8,780 acres in Greenville assessed at $1,298,700 upon which it pays $18,855 in property taxes annually. In Beaver Cove, the company owns 15,686 acres with an assessed value of $2,172,915 upon which it pays $16,078 annually, officials said.
The Tree Growth Tax Law program allows forested lands such as these to be assessed for taxes based on their value as timberland. This effectively grants landowners far lower property taxes than they otherwise would pay in exchange for maintaining the land as working forests.
Restore’s defeat hasn’t lessened its opposition to the project’s size and environmental effect. Without seeing any permit applications, St. Pierre said he couldn’t say whether his organization would oppose Plum Creek’s next steps, but more courtroom battles likely would delay the project several years, he said.
“We always said we thought it was too much and in too many of the wrong places,” St. Pierre said.
Looking ahead — without Plum Creek
Local businesses, meanwhile, continue to rely on tourists and Mother Nature. They hope the reopening of Big Squaw Mountain ski resort will boost their profits, along with already established snowmobile trails.
“If we don’t get snow, we don’t get people. We have had days where we have had 100 sleds out there,” said Seth Turner as he looked out a window of his downtown eatery, The Black Frog.
Heavy rains kept tourists away from Goodspeed’s country antique store until August, she said. She expressed hope that Plum Creek’s work with local snowmobile clubs would help make motorized tourism a steadier economic performer.
“If something did happen with their plans, I am sure that businesses here would get behind them, but as it is,” Gilbert said, “we just keep plugging along.”
Information from past BDN articles is included in this report.