Staff at the Land Use Regulation Commission are recommending that Plum Creek change the scope of several proposed subdivisions near Moosehead Lake and be required to complete several large conservation deals before any houses go up.
But critics of Plum Creek’s plan say they are disappointed that LURC staff did not recommend reducing the total number of house lots or removing plans for a controversial resort near Lily Bay.
Plum Creek officials, meanwhile, said they were still analyzing the impact of what they called “significant” potential changes to their plan.
“We’re pretty surprised to see numerous recommended changes to the plan,” said Luke Muzzy, a key architect of the proposal.
The staff recommendation, a 127-page document released late Tuesday, will be the subject of detailed discussions next week when state regulators begin debating the merits of the largest development proposal in Maine history. A final vote is not expected until late summer or early fall, at the soonest.
Plum Creek is seeking LURC authorization for 975 house lots and 1,050 “accommodations” at two resorts, one on Big Moose Mountain and the other on Lily Bay. A resort accommodation could be anything from a hotel room to a single-family house on the resort grounds.
LURC staff and consultants recommended no changes to those figures. They did, however, suggest reducing the number of house lots on Long Pond west of Moosehead from 110 to 55. Wilderness guides and some outdoor enthusiasts had urged the commission to eliminate or scale back development on Long Pond.
The recommendation also calls for removing nearly 3,000 acres from the 4,358-acre Lily Bay development zone and adding it to the conservation lands that Plum Creek is donating to offset development. Several hundred acres elsewhere in the development plan also would be added to the conservation offset under the staff proposal.
Arguably the biggest suggested changes deal with the proposal’s massive conservation component, which would prohibit development and protect public access on more than 420,000 acres of forestland in the region. Much of that land would remain in commercial forestry.
In addition to the 91,000 acres Plum Creek would donate as an offset, the company has negotiated a $35 million deal with conservation groups to sell land or easements on another 340,000 acres in the region. Each of those conservation pieces is contingent on LURC approval of a development plan.
LURC staff and consultants appear to argue that the conservation deals on nearly 390,000 acres should be signed and delivered before Plum Creek can proceed with its development plans. The recommendation also calls for strengthening protections for some sensitive shorelines and wildlife habitats.
But in another passage, LURC staff suggest that Plum Creek’s conservation plan could limit economic growth.
Plum Creek has proposed converting any undeveloped acreage within the development zones to conservation land at the end of the 30-year plan to help prevent future sprawl.
LURC staff agreed with the proposal, but in only four areas: Lily Bay, Indian Pond, Upper Wilson Pond and the southeast portion of Long Pond. Doing so in other areas, LURC staff wrote, would prevent communities such as Rockwood from growing.
“In fact, if staff/consultants’ recommendations regarding the locations and configurations of development areas and conservation easements are accepted, future development potential in the Moosehead Lake region would already be significantly constrained, even without Plum Creek’s proposal to perpetually eliminate any remaining development rights in proposed development areas,” staff wrote in their 127-page recommendation.
Leaders of Maine Audubon and the Natural Resources Council of Maine — two groups heavily involved in the regulatory review — complimented the staff for wanting to strengthen the conservation deals. They also praised the recommendation to cut in half the number of lots on Long Pond.
But the groups were critical that staff did not slash the amount of development or eliminate the resort and subdivisions around Lily Bay. The groups’ leaders said the recommendations “nibble away” at aspects of the development without addressing the bigger question of whether the houses and resorts will harm the natural beauty that makes the Moosehead region unique.
“We hope very much that there will be vigorous discussion among the commissioners about whether the scope of this development makes sense and is consistent with LURC values,” said NRCM executive director Brownie Carson.
Muzzy with Plum Creek declined to respond to specific recommendations, saying he and others were still trying to understand their impact. But Muzzy reiterated that the final plan has to make financial sense to the company.
“We’ve made so many compromises within the last three to 3½ years,” Muzzy said. “And now to look at some of the compromises [LURC staff] are recommending, these are really significant.”
Other proposed changes are intended to minimize the impact of development on the landscape and wildlife.
LURC’s seven-member commission will hold two deliberative sessions next week. The sessions, which are open to the public, will be held from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, May 27-28, at the St. Paul Center, at 136 State St. in Augusta.
Public comments will not be accepted at next week’s meetings. The commission will invite public feedback once a final staff recommendation on the plan has been presented later this year!