The Land Use Regulation Commission is right to separate, as much as possible, a conservation agreement from Plum Creek Timber Co.’s application to rezone thousands of acres around Moosehead Lake for development. The company’s agreement with private groups to conserve more than 300,000 acres in the area is welcome. But it should not force LURC to consider the conservation deal as and its development plans as part of the same package.
Last year, Plum Creek applied to LURC to rezone, through a lake concept plan, about 10,000 acres to allow for two resorts, 975 house lots and three campgrounds, an industrial park and affordable housing. Nearly 11,000 acres of shorefront land was to be set aside under conservation easements for at least 30 years. The remaining 400,000 acres owned by the Seattle-based company around Moosehead Lake would remain in timber production.
At three public sessions held by LURC, the predominant theme was that the proposed development was too spread out and too far from towns that might get an economic boost from it.
So, this spring, Plum Creek submitted a revised plan that contained the same number of house lots but eliminated shorefront lots on remote ponds and scrapped plans for a resort on Brassua Lake and for three campgrounds.
The proposed resort at Lily Bay would also be much smaller and won’t be built for at least seven years. Instead, the company would focus on a resort near the existing Squaw Mountain ski area.
The company also worked with conservation groups – The Nature Conservancy, Forest Society of Maine and Appalachian Mountain Club – to come up with what they call a “conservation framework.” Bangor Daily News publisher Richard J. Warren serves on the board of directors of the Forest Society.
The framework includes conservation easements on 330,000 acres on either side of Moosehead Lake. This land would remain working forest. A smaller parcel, 27,000 acres, would be sold to the conservancy, as would 45,200 acres near Number Five Bog, far from Moosehead Lake.
In the framework, the company has also identified 61,000 acres around the Roach River and First Roach Pond as a conservation offset to balance its proposed development. If its re-zoning plan is approved, the company says it will donate an easement on this land to the Forest Society of Maine.
A lake concept plan allows a landowner to develop more quickly than allowed under other LURC rules but it requires that development be offset by conservation. Since details of the Plum Creek easements are so far vague and some of the lands are far from the lake, LURC is wisely being careful to ensure that the proposed conservation truly offsets the proposed development. Much of the company’s development is on shorefront land, but little of the conservation is. It seems fair that shorefront development be offset by shorefront conservation.
It is also worth asking if Plum Creek receives millions of dollars for the easements and land sales whether this counts as compensatory conservation, especially since the company insists that the conservation agreement won’t go forward if its development plans aren’t approved.
With all this in mind, LURC has appropriately asked the company to clarify the conservation framework.
It suggests that Plum Creek either eliminate mention of the conservation deal from its application or make it clear that the deal is voluntary and contingent upon the conservation groups raising money to buy the easements and land. The commission also notes that terms of the deal have not been made public. This makes it hard to evaluate its worth.
LURC also took the unusual step of encouraging Plum Creek to clarify in its public presentations that the conservation agreement is voluntary and subject to a successful fundraising campaign. The company has done the opposite by wrapping the conservation framework and development proposal together.
Plum Creek should take LURC’s advice to clarify this complex situation for the benefit of the company, regulators and the public.