Plum Creek’s private agreement to conserve more than 340,000 acres in the Moosehead Lake region should remain separate from the state’s consideration of the company’s application to develop house lots and resorts on other land it owns in the region. The company’s $35 million agreement with The Nature Conservancy, Forest Society of Maine and Appalachian Mountain Club is welcome, but it should not force the Land Use Regulation Commission to consider the conservation deal 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. After criticism that its plan did not contain enough or permanent conservation, the company came up with a new plan including what it called a “conservation framework.”
The framework includes a conservation easement on 270,000 acres on either side of Moosehead Lake. This land would remain working forest, open to the public for recreation. A smaller parcel, 28,000 acres, around the Roach Ponds, would be sold to the conservancy, as would 45,000 acres along the Moose River, west of Moosehead Lake.
Under the agreement announced Tuesday, TNC will buy the land for $25 million and the easement for $10 million only if LURC approves Plum Creek’s development plan and the company accepts the LURC ruling.
LURC must continue to consider the development proposal entirely on its own merit, not as a prerequisite to the conservation deal. It must also negotiate a better deal than the conservation groups.
In the conservation framework, in most places where the conserved land nears a large water body, Plum Creek has carved the waterfront land out of the conservation package.
TNC’s Bruce Kidman says his group had to work with Plum Creek as a “willing seller.” “You can’t dictate the terms, you negotiate them,” he says. In other words, Plum Creek negotiated to keep the most valuable land, from a development and conservation view.
This is where LURC can make a difference. The people of Maine own Moosehead Lake and its outlets. The state has spent time and money ensuring the water remains clean and stocked with fish. This, and the region’s scenic views, are valuable to Maine. Though less tangible than development rights, the value of scenic vistas and clean water owned by Mainers also needs protection.
Plum Creek’s application is a lake concept plan, which allows a landowner to develop more quickly than allowed under other LURC rules but it requires that development be offset by conservation. Plum Creek has identified 72,000 acres — 62,000 acres around the Roach Ponds and 10,000 around dozens of ponds around the development — as the required conservation offset.
LURC must ensure that the required conservation truly offsets the proposed development. Much of the company’s development is on shorefront land, but little of the proposed conservation is. The required compensatory conservation should include a lot of shorefront, because undeveloped scenic vistas _are what bring many visitors to Moosehead Lake.
Plum Creek and the conservation groups have complicated the issue by talking about the development plans and conservation agreement as one package. LURC must continue to see through the public relations campaign and consider the development proposal on its own.