By Kevin Miller
Plum Creek Timber Co.’s latest revisions to its Moosehead Lake plan are receiving largely positive reviews from groups and individuals involved in the debate over future development near Maine’s largest lake.
Late last week, Plum Creek representatives announced plans to eliminate 30 percent to 40 percent of the shoreline development in the company’s 421,000-acre rezoning request for the Moosehead region.
Company officials said they are also considering donating more land for conservation and creating protective buffers around developed areas to prevent sprawl.
The revisions, which are not yet final, will include eliminating all proposed house lots on Prong Pond, Big W, along the headwaters of the Kennebec River and in other spots treasured by locals and nature-loving tourists alike.
Plum Creek proposes to re-coup some of the money lost on shoreline lots by adding more units to the 500-unit resort already proposed for Moose Mountain. The number of total proposed house lots outside of the two resorts will remain at 975, however.
The Land Use Regulation Commission is awaiting the revisions to restart the plan review with the goal of holding public hearings by summer.
But the preliminary changes generated guardedly optimistic responses from one of the harshest critics of Plum Creek’s first two development proposals for the area.
“It seems to be moving in the right direction,” said Pete Didisheim, director of advocacy for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, which has waged aggressive media campaigns against Plum Creek’s previous proposals.
“We definitely need to see the details before we can provide a significant assessment of it, but what we have seen is encouraging,” Didisheim said.
Didisheim credited Plum Creek for eliminating or scaling back development near popular or sensitive shorelines, adding, however, that his organization still has some concerns.
Last year, NRCM released its own development scenario that would have Plum Creek focus most housing near existing communities.
The group’s “alternative vision” identified Moose Mountain – already home to an existing but only semioperational ski facility – as one area suitable for new development. But Didisheim said NRCM’s position will depend on what, exactly, the company proposes in its resort.
Greenville town manager John Simko said he believes the revised plan will offer economic benefits to the town and region as long as it still includes additional trail access for hiking and snowmobiling, an affordable housing component and hundreds of thousands of acres of permanent conservation.
Simko, who has previously supported some aspects of the plan, said most longtime Greenville residents remember the heyday of Big Squaw Mountain ski resort on Moose Mountain. Downsizing the number of shoreline lots and focusing more on the proposed Moose Mountain resort should help the town, he said.
“If at the end of the day we are able to get a quality resort put in up the road…I think it would be of benefit to the region,” Simko said.
Luke Muzzy, a Plum Creek representative, said Friday that the company plans to increase the acreage placed into permanent conservation as “balance” for the development.
The company has already offered to donate about 70,000 acres as balance plus negotiated a $35 million deal with several conservation groups to protect another 340,000-plus acres.
Leaders of the Moosehead Region Futures Committee, a group of Moosehead-area residents who have been soliciting feedback and offering suggestions on the plan, said they were also “very encouraged” by some of the revisions.
Jim Glavine, the group’s vice president, said the organization is withholding judgment until the final revisions are in, but Glavine said they were pleased to see development moved off of sensitive areas like Prong Pond, Big W and part of Brassua Lake.
Glavine said he was also pleased to hear Plum Creek plans to donate more conservation land and is eliminating a zoned area that could be developed after the concept plan expires in 30 years.
“We are very encouraged by the direction that Plum Creek has obviously taken,” he said Saturday. “It is apparent that they have listened more [to citizens’ comments] maybe than they did the first time.”
More than a month before Plum Creek announced it planned more revisions to its plan, LURC staff completed an analysis that found that less than one-third of the 975 house lots were close enough to, or compatible with, existing development under the agency’s strict “adjacency principle.”
This regulatory principle aims to encourage orderly growth by requiring new development rezoning to be no more than one mile by road from existing development. In addition, the proposed development must be of “similar type, use, occupancy, scale and intensity” as existing structures.
Only 305 of the 975 house lots in the second plan met the adjacency requirements.
However, another 269 lots were located on lakes that LURC has already identified as suitable for “responsible” development that protects the area’s natural resources.
Additionally, LURC’s concept plan process offers the commission more flexibility to waive adjacency requirements in exchange for “comparable conservation measures.”
LURC staff did not offer any conclusions or opinions in their adjacency analysis. Another report did offer suggestions, however, on how Plum Creek could improve its plan and still make tens of millions of dollars.
The report – a collaboration of the nonprofit Open Space Institute, consulting firm Industrial Economics Inc. and the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center at the University of Maine – estimated that the current plan could conservatively earn the company about $53 million. That does not include the $35 million conservation deal.
By contrast, the company would stand to earn about $31 million by legally developing its land piecemeal rather than through a LURC concept plan, the report stated.
Peter Howell, executive vice president for New York-based Open Space Institute, had not yet seen Plum Creek’s revisions on Friday.
But he said the company could address some critics’ concerns by reducing shoreline development and increasing conservation while still earning a healthy profit.
“We really don’t have a point of view here from the sense of, it is good or bad,” Howell said of the plan. “It has some strengths and some weaknesses, but there is more they can give up.”
Plum Creek’s Muzzy said while the company did take into account LURC’s adjacency report, most of the changes were made in response to feedback from citizens and organizations as well as LURC staff.