Plum Creek Timber Co.’s proposal to rezone more than 400,000 acres in the Moosehead Lake region promises to be the biggest development in Maine history, and the fight about its approval promises to be one of the state’s most complicated legal battles.
In preparation for hearings that could be nine months or more away, two leading environmental groups already have hired two of Maine’s best known trial lawyers to represent them before the Land Use Regulation Commission.
Portland attorney Peter DeTroy will represent the Natural Resources Council of Maine and Harry Richardson of Bangor will represent Maine Audubon.
Neither lawyer is known for work on environmental causes or at hearings before state boards. Both typically work in courtrooms, usually representing companies that have been sued in high-stakes cases. But both say they are taking on this case at reduced fees because they think it’s important.
“It’s why I got into this whole business to begin with,” DeTroy said. “It’s a chance to do something I really care about for a larger public good. This is challenging, interesting, important stuff.”
The two groups are not the only ones seeking legal muscle as the case moves forward. Plum Creek, a Washington-based company that is the country’s largest private landowner, has worked with several Portland firms, including Preti Flaherty Beliveau and Pachios, and Verrill Dana. Some opponents believe that by spreading the work around, Plum Creek is attempting to create conflicts of interests by doing business with firms that employ many of the state’s best-known environmental law experts. The company denies the charge.
Jim Lehner, Plum Creek’s general manager for the Northeast region, called the alleged strategy “nonexistent.” He said the size of the proposal required the company to seek out all the expertise it could find.
“One lawyer might hire another to do a portion of the work, but there was no strategy to (create conflicts) in any way,” Lehner said.
Even LURC has hired outside help to review the plan. The commission contracted with environmental lawyer Ronald Kreisman and Evan Richert, the former state planning director. Kreisman has represented a number of environmental groups and worked on the negotiations that led to the removal of the Edwards Dam in Augusta and three dams on the Penobscot River.
A law recently passed by the Legislature gave the state authority to collect fees from the applicant in order to hire outside consultants. Aga Pinette, project manager for LURC, said the enormous size of the proposal and its potential for creating precedent for other massive developments made it necessary for the state to hire extra help.
The Plum Creek proposal calls for developing 4,000 of its 400,000 acres. The project includes plans for 57 different subdivisions and two resorts. “The process has never been used at this scale before,” Pinette said.
LURC staff and the consultants already are reviewing Plum Creek’s application. The first step is to determine whether the application is complete, and Pinette issued a letter last month requesting more information from the company. The company has said it will comply by Friday. The next step for the staff will be determining what the proposal’s effect would be, a process that could last six months.
Then the seven-member commission will have a public hearing at which Plum Creek, and an unknown number of intervenors will be given a chance to present their own experts and cross-examine witnesses. LURC hearings have lasted as long as three weeks, and that’s the part of the process that DeTroy and Richardson have been hired to handle.
Pete Didisheim, advocacy director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said DeTroy may not be an expert in environmental law, but he brings other attributes to the process.
“He’s a seasoned litigator, and this is a trial,” he said. “This is going to be an important proceeding, and he has a very sharp legal mind. We are happy to have him on our team.”
Richardson, 76, backed environmentally friendly legislation, including the creation of LURC, when he was a Republican legislator during the the early 1970s. He has volunteered with Audubon and said he is anxious to get involved in this approval process.
“Plum Creek has come up with a proposal that is astonishing in size and would have a tsunami-like impact,” Richardson said. “There is not any development that even approaches it, not even close.”
Sally Stockwell, director of conservation for Audubon, said hiring Richardson doesn’t indicate any change in strategy for her organization. “Our goal and our strength really is wildlife habitat issues, and that won’t change,” she said.
Richardson said he was hired for his trial expertise, but said disputes could be resolved before the hearings if Plum Creek agrees to reduce the size of its development and the areas that it plans to develop.
Lehner said Plum Creek already has scaled back its plans to answer the environmentalists’ concerns and is not likely to change more.
“How many times do you go back to the drawing board?” Lehner said.