A decade ago, state officials approved a contentious development plan for lands in the Moosehead Lake region. Now, the new owners of those lands are asking to formally drop development plans, blaming the recession of a decade ago for eroding interest in second homes and resorts near Greenville.
Late last month, Weyerhauser filed a petition with state regulators to remove development zoning on about 17,000 acres of land, returning the land to a designation more suited to timber management.
The Land Use Regulation Commission will first consider the petition at its Oct. 9 meeting in Greenville.
As it did with the original lake concept plan, the commission should take its time, especially to give local residents and businesses more opportunity to consider and weigh in on the change. The commission should also work to limit any unanticipated consequences from the change.
Commission staff have supported such a process in a letter that accompanies Weyerhauser’s petition. The staff emphasized that the development plans for the Greenville area was the focal point of other planning efforts that build around the expectation that house lots and resorts would ultimately be built on that land. If that is no longer the case, the LUPC staff wisely asks for time to develop an alternate vision for the region.
In its filing with the LUPC, Weyerhauser was generally supportive of a regional planning effort for the lands.
“Unfortunately, the impact of the 2008-2009 recession forever changed the United States development landscape. As a result, and despite our best efforts, the development components under the Concept Plan have not been implemented and no development has occurred,” Luke Muzzy, a senior land asset manager for Weyerhauser, wrote to the commission.
“Therefore, we have concluded that the solutions incorporated in the Concept Plan are no longer practicable to implement. We believe returning the zoning back to its original classification, which allows sustainable timber management, would provide near-term predictability for LUPC, Weyerhaeuser and the Moosehead Lake Region,” he added.
This move is not entirely unexpected given that no development has occurred as a result of the 2009 plan, which was challenged but ultimately upheld by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. In addition, Weyerhauser, a timber company that is one of the state’s largest landowners after merging with Plum Creek Timber Co. in 2016, has a focus on growing and harvesting trees. Plum Creek, the company that initiated and fought for the development plan, was incorporated as a real estate investment trust that was also in the forestry business.
Weyerhauser’s request would formally end plans to bring two resorts, 1,000 second home lots, a golf course and other tourist attractions to the Moosehead Lake region. It will not, however, affect the more than 360,000 acres that were permanently conserved and protected from development under the lake concept plan.
This has long been a significant, and lasting, portion of the plan. The Forest Society of Maine will continue to hold an easement on more than 360,000 acres of land owned by Weyerhauser. Development on the land is severely restricted and does not include homes and resorts and forest management must meet prescribed standards.
In addition to the conservation easement, another easement, held by the state, permanently protects 121 acres of hiking trails that have been recently built or upgraded. More than 80 miles of snowmobile trails are also permanently protected.
Nearly 30,000 acres of land that were sold to and protected by the Appalachian Mountain Club in the Roaches Pond area and a 25-acre land donation to Coastal Enterprises Inc. for affordable housing also would not be impacted by the zoning change.
Nor would the change impact the company’s current tax rate since the rezoned land has remained in tree growth, even though development is permitted there. However, if the value of the land changes with the rezoning, the company’s tax payments could also change, according to Maine Revenue Services.
The proposed change, while not unexpected, will impact the future of the Moosehead region. Working with local residents and businesses to adapt to market changes, and to reimagine that future without the previously planned development, is both fair and responsible.