AUGUSTA, Maine – Members of Maine’s Land Use Regulation Commission indicated Wednesday that they could stomach an unprecedented amount of development in the Moosehead Lake region as long as it comes with land conservation on an equally historic scale.
It wasn’t an official vote, but the commissioners directed staff to fine-tune a proposal that would allow Plum Creek Timber Co. to create 975 house lots and two large resorts near Maine’s largest lake.
Several of the seven commission members expressed concerns about the scope of the development, particularly at Lily Bay. But those concerns were tempered in large part by the prospect of permanently protecting nearly 400,000 acres of forestland in the Moosehead region, commissioners said.
“That is extremely important,” commissioner Rebecca Kurtz said. “In my mind, nobody is going to get everything that they want. But this proposal seems to offer the most benefit for every entity.”
LURC’s review of the largest development proposal in Maine history is far from complete.
The commission will open the issue back up to public comment next week before potentially making more revisions. A final vote is expected sometime later this summer or fall.
Of course, that’s assuming Plum Creek will agree to the current compromise.
“We’ve got a lot to consider,” said Luke Muzzy, a key architect of the plan with Plum Creek. “We’ll spend the next few days really digesting this … But we’re concerned. There are a lot of changes here.”
Plum Creek’s critics, on the other hand, contend that LURC hasn’t made enough changes to a plan they say contains too much development in the wrong places. And they are accusing both LURC staff and commission members of being so wooed by the conservation plan that they overlooked the potential harm caused by the development.
“It’s like they’ve given Plum Creek all of the development and everything they want with very little restrictions,” said Bob Guethlen, a resident of Tomhegan Township on Moosehead Lake.
Plum Creek’s proposal has deeply divided Mainers in all corners of the state.
Supporters argue that Plum Creek’s plan for 975 house lots, two resorts and more than 400,000 acres of conservation will create jobs and promote tourism while permanently protecting the region’s natural beauty.
Opponents, meanwhile, predict that outlying vacation homes for the wealthy will not create jobs, funnel tax dollars into local economies or help fill shrinking schools. At the same time, critics say the resulting traffic, pollution and “wilderness sprawl” will spoil the very qualities that draw tourists to the region.
The LURC staff recommendations loosely endorsed by the commission Wednesday do not change the number of house lots or reduce the 1,050 resort “accommodations” proposed for Big Moose Mountain and Lily Bay. A resort accommodation could be a hotel room, rental condominium or a single-family house.
Muzzy said the company is concerned about the staff recommendation to relocate 55 house lots away from Long Pond and a proposal to remove nearly 3,000 acres from the Lily Bay development.
Perhaps the most significant changes dealt with the conservation lands.
Plum Creek has offered to permanently protect more than 430,000 acres, with one giant catch: The conservation deal is contingent on LURC approval of a development plan.
But LURC’s draft proposal turns the tables on Plum Creek by requiring that the company complete the conservation deals before it receives any permits for houses or resorts.
“This is a package,” commissioner Gwen Hilton said in explaining why she could support the plan despite concerns about impacts on Lily Bay. “There is a potential for getting a lot of conservation land out of this.”
Several groups opposed to Plum Creek’s application see that as a bad trade-off, however.
Critics pointed out that Plum Creek is donating only 91,000 acres for permanent protection. The company would receive $35 million from conservation groups for easements or land sales on the remaining 340,000 acres.
Those groups, which include The Nature Conservancy, have said they plan to seek grants from the state and federal governments to help pay the $35 million price tag. And that prospect of taxpayer dollars going into Plum Creek pockets angers critics.
“There is a public policy issue of a corporation benefiting twice, first from an extraordinary amount of development … and then through mitigation being paid for by the public,” said Jody Jones with Maine Audubon.