Plum Creek Timber Co.’s proposal to build two resorts and nearly 1,000 house lots around Moosehead Lake will substantially change the look and feel of the region. So, as the Land Use Regulation Commission considers a staff recommendation to approve a zoning change on tens of thousands of acres, commissioners must be convinced that the proposed development is appropriate for the area, which has long been dependent on tourism and logging.
By LURC’s own criteria, several conditions must be met. There must be a demonstrated need for the development and it must have no adverse impacts on existing uses and resources. Conservation within the plan must also compensate for development.
Nearly four years ago, Plum Creek applied to LURC to rezone more than 20,000 acres near Moosehead Lake to allow for development. Since then, the plan has been significantly improved.
One resort was moved from the more remote Brassua Lake to near the existing downhill ski area, nearly half the development proposed for shorefront lands and remote ponds was moved elsewhere and the amount and location of the land required to be set aside for conservation has improved.
On the other hand, the number of house lots — 975 — has remained constant and the development still sprawls over an area stretching from Kokadjo to near Jackman. A conservation framework, a private agreement to preserve nearly 400,000 acres negotiated by Plum Creek and the Nature Conservancy, Forest Society of Maine and Appalachian Mountain Club, was intertwined with LURC approval of the development proposal.
This agreement, for which Plum Creek will be paid $35 million, will likely enhance wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities, but it needed to remain separate from the rezoning application. By combining the two, LURC sets the precedent of conservation “double dipping,” says former Attorney General Jon Lund. “Plum Creek would get two benefits for the price of one and escape the need to reduce its development or increase its donation conservation,” wrote on these pages last year.
This was highlighted by Plum Creek’s last minute request to cancel the easement portion of the plan if its development plans are rejected, terminated or tied up in court. Instead, LURC staff recommended that the conservation zoning remain in place for at least five years if the development plan is dropped. This would give LURC time to develop zoning for the Moosehead Lake region or make other arrangements to conserve the land. Zoning for the region was years overdue when Plum Creek announced its development plans.
Studies have shown that Maine would benefit from more high-end tourism offerings like those included in the Plum Creek plan. Such development, however, must be in the right place and of the right scale so as not to ruin the natural character that draws tourists to the area.
Plum Creek is to be commended for offering a vision for tourism and economic development in the Moosehead Lake region in the absence of a state plan. LURC must decide if it is the right one.