By Kevin Miller, BDN Staff
PORTLAND, Maine â Maine’s highest court on Thursday ruled that state regulators followed proper procedures when approving Plum Creek’s historic development plan for the Moosehead Lake region.
The state supreme court disagreed with a lower court that had ordered the Land Use Regulation Commission to hold additional hearings on Plum Creek’s proposal to rezone nearly 400,000 acres in the North Woods as part of the largest development plan in state history.
The court decision comes 2½ years after LURC approved Plum Creek’s 30-year concept plan and ostensibly clears the way for the company to move forward with plans for 975 house lots and two resorts near Maine’s largest lake.
“We believe the Supreme Court’s decision is the final one and the concept plan is in place as of today,” Mark Doty, a spokesman for Plum Creek in Maine, said in an interview. But first, Doty said, the company will make permanent a 363,000-acre conservation deal that was key to winning LURC approval. The conservation plan has been in place on an interim basis pending the appeals process.
“Today’s news is great but it is a very long-term plan,” Doty said. “So we will take care of the conservation [plan] and then consider the market conditions for future development opportunities. It’s been a long legal process and we have had our efforts on hold as we awaited the final outcome.”
Thursday’s ruling could be the final blow to opposition to Plum Creek’s concept plan, although critics will have ample opportunities to challenge the company as it seeks permits for each individual subdivision or resort.
The Natural Resources Council of Maine, RESTORE: The North Woods and the Forest Ecology Network had quickly appealed LURC’s September 2009 decision, arguing the commission had erred by rewriting key aspects of Plum Creek’s plan. Instead, the appellants asserted that the commission should have rejected the plan, as submitted, if it did not meet LURC’s requirements for approval.
In April 2011, Maine Superior Court Justice Thomas Humphrey ordered LURC to reopen hearings on the issue but only on narrow procedural grounds. Humphrey said commissioners had violated their own rules by adopting a substantially rewritten rezoning application without holding another public hearing on the revisions.
The supreme court disagreed on Thursday and instead upheld LURC’s original vote.
“We conclude that LURC did not violate its procedural rules and did not otherwise err by approving the rezoning petition and concept plan,” the court wrote.
Staff at NRCM, who were among the most vocal critics of Plum Creek’s various plans throughout the process, released a statement Thursday afternoon saying they were disappointed but respected the court’s decision. The organization hinted that it plans to stay involved.
“If Plum Creek decides to move forward with its real estate development, it will have to apply for specific permits, and the development would have to be reviewed and approved before construction could begin,” the NRCM statement said. “We know that many Maine people have expressed concerns about Plum Creek’s development proposal; there will be additional opportunities for public comment if and when the company files permit applications.”
Gov. Paul LePage, whose administration inherited the Plum Creek court battle, praised the court action.
“This court decision affirms our belief that good land-use planning, conservation easements on working forests and expansion of the eco-economy in the Piscataquis and Somerset counties can be founded on common ground,” LePage said in a statement. “I commend Plum Creek, conservation groups engaged in the easement, LURC, the forest industry and the Greenville community on their achievement.”