by Kevin Miller
AUGUSTA, Maine — Exactly 18 months ago this Wednesday, Plum Creek received the regulatory green light for one of the largest, costliest and most contentious development proposals in Maine history.
It was a major victory for the timber company and its supporters. But nobody on either side of Plum Creek’s Moosehead Lake housing and resort proposal expected the Land Use Regulation Commission’s September 2009 vote to be the final word in an already 4-year-old debate.
And a year and a half later, Plum Creek’s concept plan for the Moosehead region remains just that — a concept on paper.
“It’s been pretty quiet,” said Mark Doty, spokesman for the company in Maine.
Opponents had signaled their intention to appeal even before LURC members voted unanimously to rezone more than 10,000 acres near Moosehead. That court appeal is still pending.
LURC’s decision paved the way for Plum Creek to begin developing plans for nearly 1,000 house lots and two sizable resorts around Moosehead, all of which are subject to additional LURC approvals.
Supporters argue the projects — spread over as many as 30 years — will provide an economic adrenaline shot to the local economy. But critics contend the houses, resorts and resulting traffic will mar the scenic beauty that makes Moosehead unique.
The vote also triggered the second-largest conservation deal in U.S. history — roughly 400,000 acres of Maine’s North Woods permanently protected from development but open to outdoor recreation and commercial timber harvesting.
Plum Creek completed those conservation deals within months of the LURC decision, as required. However, the company has held off on filing any permit requests with LURC for individual subdivisions or either of the two resorts, pending the court action.
“We really haven’t done anything in that respect,” Doty said. “We are waiting on the appeal.”
A decision on Plum Creek’s case could come any day. Or it may come months from now.
Attorneys for Plum Creek and the three appellants — the Forest Ecology Network, RESTORE: The North Woods and the Natural Resources Council of Maine — made oral arguments before Maine Superior Court Justice Thomas Humphrey last month.
The three organizations argued that LURC commissioners and staff erred by rewriting key aspects of Plum Creek’s plan in order to put it in a form that the commission could support. Instead, the appellants asserted that the commission should have rejected the plan, as submitted, if it did not meet the requirements for approval.
Attorneys for LURC and Plum Creek defended the process, which involved one of the longest and most public regulatory reviews in state history.
“We made our arguments, so it is now up to Justice Humphrey to decide,” said Lynne Williams, an attorney for the Forest Ecology Network and RESTORE. “It’s likely that whichever side prevails, the other side will appeal to the [Maine] Supreme Court.”
Humphrey did not indicate when he planned to render his decision, Williams said.
Plum Creek is already operating under the terms of a conservation easement on 363,000 acres that was included in the LURC-approved plan. Should the appellants win in nullifying LURC’s decision, the terms of the conservation easements will remain in place for five years.
Doty said the company is biding its time on the development side, however.
“We are not doing any harvesting in the development [zones] and that is to leave us the most flexibility” when designing the subdivisions or resorts, he said.