State regulators are urging Plum Creek to be more transparent about the details of a land conservation deal tied to the company’s controversial development plans for Moosehead Lake.
Back in March, Plum Creek Timber Co. held a high-profile press event in Augusta to unveil a proposal to protect more than 300,000 acres in the Moosehead Lake region with the cooperation of several land conservation groups.
Calling it the second-largest conservation easement in the United States, Plum Creek officials hoped the tentative deal would help bolster public support for the company’s application to build nearly 1,000 house lots and two resorts near Moosehead.
But several of Maine’s environmental organizations have since strongly criticized aspects of the deal.
Now, staff with the Land Use Regulation Commission, which oversees development in Maine’s Unorganized Territory, have expressed concern about how a conservation agreement negotiated privately with outside groups should fit into the public regulatory review process.
LURC officials could order Plum Creek to remove all references to the private conservation deal from the company’s application, potentially further complicating the company’s efforts to win approval of the largest subdivision in Maine history.
Seattle-based Plum Creek is offering to conserve more than 400,000 acres in the North Woods. In exchange, the company wants the right to sell 975 house lots and locate two resorts, an industrial park and other structures on about 10,000 acres around Moosehead.
Roughly 72,000 acres of the conservation land would offset, or “balance,” the development proposed in Plum Creek’s concept plan, as required under LURC guidelines.
Plum Creek has offered to protect the remaining 300,000-plus acres from development through a side agreement negotiated with The Nature Conservancy, the Appalachian Mountain Club and the Forest Society of Maine. Without disclosing dollar figures, the groups have said they would buy the land outright or purchase conservation easements.
Plum Creek officials say the deal is contingent on LURC approval of the rest of its concept plan, which they insist provides more long-range planning, public input and conservation guarantees than the alternative, piecemeal development.
“If LURC says no to the development part of it, we’re not going to go through with the remainder of the framework,” Jim Lehner, general manager of Plum Creek’s Northeast division, said this week. “In our view, they’re joined at the head.”
That either-or rhetoric has created a dilemma for some organizations that want to conserve 400,000 acres but cannot support development that they fear could ruin Moosehead’s wild and scenic character.
Jym St. Pierre with RESTORE: The North Woods recently likened the deal to blackmail, accusing the company of “holding conservation of these lands hostage unless Plum Creek gets its development.”
Other organizations are fighting to separate the two issues.
The Natural Resources Council of Maine, Maine Audubon and the Moosehead Region Futures Committee each have sent letters to LURC urging the staff to remove the conservation framework from Plum Creek’s development plan application.
The groups contend that repeated references to the framework create an impression that the private deal is part of Plum Creek’s conservation offset. In reality, the company will receive money for the land and the easements.
“This misrepresentation has the potential to profoundly and unduly influence the public’s and the commissioners’ thinking and view of the proposed plan such that they may not be able to independently evaluate the appropriate balance of development and conservation required under LURC’s rezoning standards,” Sally Stockwell, director of conservation for Maine Audubon, wrote in a letter.
The Moosehead Region Futures Committee, a group of local residents and business owners seeking to influence the development debate, objected to any part of the concept plan being negotiated without state oversight.
Jim Glavine wrote that many of the lands and waters included in the framework are worthy of conservation and could become part of an offset package.
“The conservation planning process, however, must take place within the mandate of state law and a regulatory process that is transparent and inclusive,” Glavine wrote. “Privately negotiated easement arrangements have no place in these proceedings.”
LURC staff declined to rule on the issue, deferring the matter to the LURC board’s presiding officer. If the commission chairman rules that references to the framework were irrelevant or potentially prejudicial to the LURC review process, Plum Creek will have an opportunity to amend its application.
But in a letter to Plum Creek’s legal team, LURC staff encouraged the company to avoid confusion by either eliminating all references to the framework in its concept plan or explicitly stating that the framework is nonregulatory and voluntary.
“We further encourage Plum Creek to take every opportunity in its public presentations to clarify these points,” reads the June 26 letter from LURC director Catherine Carroll.
Plum Creek’s Lehner defended the linkage, saying nearly all of the 400,000 acres were included in the company’s original 2005 rezoning request.
LURC will decide whether the 72,000 acres is a sufficient offset, Lehner said. The framework, he added, provides the permanent conservation that so many people wanted to see in Plum Creek’s revised concept plan.
“It’s two separate deals, but it’s still one plan,” Lehner said.
Bruce Kidman, spokesman for the Maine chapter of The Nature Conservancy, said this week his organization has no position on how much weight, if any, LURC should give to the framework. Nor is it endorsing Plum Creek’s development plan, he said.
Instead, the organization saw an opportunity to protect some prime, undeveloped tracts in the North Woods. He also dismissed suggestions that the issue had created a schism between environmental groups that normally try to present a united front.
“This is just one instance where our approach and their approach were not aligned,” Kidman said. “We cannot and don’t want to be in lock step. If we were, we might as well form one big group.”