COLUMN: Theo Stein
Is it or isn’t it?
Is Plum Creek’s much-ballyhooed “conservation framework” part of its application to the Land Use Regulation Commission for an unprecedented rezoning around Moosehead Lake – or isn’t it?
Is Plum Creek’s demand that LURC approve its 975-lot, two-resort development plan before conservation groups pay tens of millions of dollars to secure an easement an improper attempt to sway LURC’s commissioners – or isn’t it?
The answers carry significant implications for the future of Maine’s unorganized territories.
Plum Creek has asked LURC to rezone about 420,000 acres around Moosehead Lake, the liquid heart of the North Woods. The rezoning would allow the company to turn $200-per-acre timberland into $200,000-per-acre trophy-home lots in the biggest development scheme ever proposed in Maine.
Plum Creek initially submitted its Moosehead concept plan in 2004, but LURC found that it was deficient, particularly in the lack of permanent conservation.
So this spring, Plum Creek announced it had struck a deal with The Nature Conservancy, the Appalachian Mountain Club and The Forest Society of Maine in which the company agreed to sell a 269,000-acre easement, the second-largest conservation easement in U.S. history.
If the groups could raise enough money.
And if LURC approved its new concept plan.
Now LURC’s staff has asked Plum Creek to clear up some of the questions surrounding the conservation side deal. That’s appropriate because Plum Creek has been sending mixed signals.
On May 26, Virginia Davis, Plum Creek’s attorney, wrote the LURC staff regarding the matter.
“So that the record is perfectly clear, the Conservation Framework is part of the proposed Concept Plan for Plum Creek’s lands in the Moosehead Lake Region,” Davis wrote.
Yet precisely one week later, Plum Creek regional manager Jim Lehner phoned this writer to “eliminate any confusion” raised by a Kennebec Journal editorial questioning whether the framework should be included.
Plum Creek, Lehner said, never intended for the framework to be considered as part of the formal application. The proposed sale of the easement did not meet the test of conservation donation required by LURC’s “concept plan” format, he acknowledged. The easement was included in the application so that commissioners could see the broader picture, he said.
Lehner was traveling this week and unavailable for comment.
Asked to reconcile the apparent discrepancy, Davis said Lehner “may have misspoken.”>/p>
“I just can’t answer that question,” she added. “It has always been part of the application in my mind. It has to be part of the application because it attaches to land in the plan. It would be not transparent if we didn’t tell people what future plans for that land were. It’s also a huge public benefit.”>/p>
Transparency is a fine word. So let’s try to cut through the confusion.
The conservation framework is a non-regulatory, non-binding option on a future transaction between private parties over which LURC has no authority and about which, at this point, it has no details. The references to the framework, beginning on page 1 of the application and appearing in roughly 60 other places throughout, are tremendously prejudicial to an objective review of Plum Creek’s plans.
And it’s clear that the framework is contingent on LURC’s approval. There is no ambiguity from the company on this point.
LURC director Catherine Carroll outlined these concerns in a June 26 letter giving Plum Creek fair warning the agency may require the removal of all references to the conservation option.
The agency also asked Plum Creek to address a number of deficiencies in this application.
For example, Plum Creek has not submitted an evaluation of the services that the owners of 975 house lots and visitors at two resorts, an RV campground and other camps will expect from nearby towns.
Plum Creek has not identified or explained all deviations from LURC’s land-use standards.
There is no documentation for the conservation easement or how it may differ from LURC’s standard easement.
Plum Creek wants to have it both ways. If company officials are seen as trying to hold conservation hostage, it could backfire with the commission. At the same time, linking the side deal to the rezoning plan breeds climate of uncertainty and fear for what might happen if LURC rejects the development.
The commission would set a horrible precedent if it allowed Plum Creek’s gambit to succeed.
It should set the conservation framework aside and let the development succeed or fail on its merits.