Fireworks Over, Observers Await Plum Creek Fallout
October 29, 2008 -
AUGUSTA -- The preliminary approval of Plum Creek Timber Co.'s controversial plan for resorts, homes and conservation land may have settled the future of the Moosehead Lake region.
But what does it mean for the other 10 million acres of Maine's North Woods?
That, too, is a matter of disagreement.
The approval amounts to a green light for other landowners with large-scale development ambitions, according to some observers. Others, however, say the contentious three-year-long review and several rounds of changes to Plum Creek's original plan are sure to scare other landowners away and lead to more piecemeal development.
"Plum Creek has been the guinea pig," said Catherine Carroll, director of the Maine Land Use Commission. "They came in really, I think, blind to the whole process and what the reaction would be from the public and the stakeholders. Landowners, after the Plum Creek process, now have some predictability. They know what they would be walking into if they come up with a concept plan."
The land use commission gave preliminary approval to a modified version of Plum Creek's rezoning proposal earlier this month, and the company agreed to go along with the changes. A final vote to approve the rezoning is expected this winter.
The large, mixed-use proposal, which is known as a concept plan, includes two resorts, 975 house lots and the conservation of more than 400,000 acres of land, most of which will remain working forest.
Each resort and subdivision will have to go through a separate permitting review, and the first phase of construction is likely to be a year or more away. Nonprofit groups also must now raise $35 million – or at least a good part of it – before finalizing a deal to protect most of the conservation land.
The land use commission's rezoning approval may be challenged in court by opponents who said it ignored public input and the commission's own review standards. That could at least delay the project.
"We are definitely keeping appeal as one of our options moving forward," said Cathy Johnson, North Woods project director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine.
Johnson and others say the commission's endorsement of the plan will encourage other owners who, like Plum Creek, view the forests as more than a long-term investment in timber.
"There are a number of large landowners who own blocks of land and around rivers, lakes or whatever, and you have to think they're looking to get money from their land just as Plum Creek was. We have a different kind of landowner now in Maine's North Woods," she said. "Our fear is that the door has now been opened to large-scale development in the North Woods and other landowners will learn from Plum Creek's experience."
Carroll, the commission's director, said landowners have not yet filed in with other concept plans. But it may just be too soon.
"Nobody, to my knowledge, has been approaching this agency" with similar development ideas, Carroll said. "I expect that we will (hear from them) in the future, but I don't know when."
While the prolonged review of Plum Creek's plan might discourage some, other landowners might have an easier time, she said.
"There's been many lessons learned and it seems to me they could propose something closer" to an acceptable plan, Carroll said. For example, she said, consulting with the commission staff ahead of time could speed up the review process. Plum Creek did not talk to the agency until after it unveiled its first plan, which it eventually took back to the drawing board.
"Obviously, it's been a long, drawn-out process that demands a lot of resources," said Thomas Kittredge, executive director of the Piscatquis County Economic Development Council and a supporter of the plan. But, he said, "I think, in the end, it's still worth it to go through the process."
Other observers, however, said landowners will now avoid large-scale concept plans elsewhere in the unorganized territories. "I think they've been watching this process and thinking that they wouldn't go near it with a 10-foot pole," said Tom Rumpf, associate director of The Nature Conservancy in Maine.
And that's not necessarily a good thing as far as Rumpf and some others are concerned.
The Nature Conservancy negotiated the $35 million deal with Plum Creek that added 340,000 acres in conservation land to Plum Creek's plans. "We know that it wouldn't happen otherwise. This project provided the leverage to get to the conservation outcome that we're happy with," said Mike Tetrault, state director for The Nature Conservancy in Maine.
But, instead of proposing large-scale plans that include conservation and planning, landowners who want to develop their properties are now more likely to do it in a piecemeal fashion, such as by splitting off kingdom lots or small subdivisions, Tetrault said. "We were hopeful this would set a precedent for landscape-scale planning, but that's probably gone by the wayside now."
One thing virtually all observers agree about, however, is that the energy and attention focused on the Moosehead Lake region for the past three years may now lead to a broader discussion about Maine's unorganized territories.
"The people of Maine need to come up with a collective vision of what's going to happen in the North Woods," said Bruce Kidman, a spokesman for The Nature Conservancy. "Everybody feels the lack of that kind of consensus."
By JOHN RICHARDSON, Staff Writer, Portland Press Herald, October 26, 2008
Lakes: Moosehead Lake
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