Opponents of the controversial Plum Creek development project are raising questions about the fact that the company has paid groups that testified in support of the project before state regulators. In addition, a company spokesman also acknowledged today that Plum Creek has now paid $1.7 million to the Land Use Regulation Commission, the regulatory body that approved its plan after five years of review.
Given that Piscataquis County is one of the poorest in Maine, it may not seem surprising that the county and its economic development team would be unable to afford legal representation in the long and technical hearing process involving the largest development project ever proposed in the state.
And given that Plum Creek is the nation’s largest private landowner, it’s not surprising that the company would be capable of spreading money around to support such a major project. Thomas Kittredge, Executive Director of the Piscataquis County Economic Development Council says his group accepted a grant worth more than $75,000 from Plum Creek.
“We wanted to be involved in this process,” Kittredge says. “We thought it was important because it was an economic growth issue. We didn’t have a dedicated budget for legal expenses. We felt it was not a good use of Piscataquis County tax dollars to pay for legal expenses and so this is what our group felt was the appropriate way to go about doing it.”>/p>
What is unusual to Hillary Lister of the Native Forest Network, however, is that such payments were only recently disclosed. In fact, she says, questions about Plum Creek’s financial support for local groups were raised many times during the LURC proceedings, but she says none of the groups acknowledged that they were receiving money from Plum Creek.
“At one point there was a panel that had representatives from Piscataquis County and Somerset County Economic Development Councils on them and the question was asked to the whole panel whether any of them were receiving funding from Plum Creek. Only two panelists responded. One said, ‘No.’s And one said, ‘Not, that I know of,'” Lister says.
In addition to the Piscataquis County Economic Development Council, the Maine State Chamber of Commerce has also acknowledged receiving tens of thousands of dollars from Plum Creek for its support and participation in the months-long LURC hearing process.
Chamber President Dana Connors says his group approached Plum Creek about getting assistance when it became clear that it would cost the Chamber more than it had budgeted for the cause. Connors says he can’t recall exactly how much Plum Creek contributed for his own time and for attorneys’s fees, but he estimated that it was more than $75,000.
“We defend our members. We take on causes and efforts on behalf of the business community and we do that with pride. And in this instance, because of the extended litigation that was involved, because of the importance for the organization to stand up in defense of an effort that we believe very strongly in – that this was not an ordinary case and this was something that would have exceeded our line item – this went well beyond that,” Connors says.
Other supporters that received money from Plum Creek to take part in the LURC Process: The Maine Snowmobile Association and the Professional Logging Contractors of Maine.
For it’s part, Plum Creek is standing by its practice of providing financial assistance. Kathy Budinick is a company spokesperson. “Many of the established supporters of our plan were willing to invest their time to demonstrate their support of the plan and Plum Creek really appreciated that, but we also recognize that for some, there were costs associated with showing that support so we assisted some groups with some financial support in order for them to show their support during the process. With respect to costs associated with the project, we regard those as proprietary,” Budinick says.
Budinick won’t say how much Plum Creek spent, or how many groups it helped. But she acknowledges that the company has also paid $1.7 million to LURC to defray the costs of the proceedings over the past five years.
LURC’s Director Catherine Carroll says the Legislature gave her agency the ability to assess processing fees for projects considered to be extraordinary in scope. “So over the years the staff assessed processing fees to Plum Creek and once the commission made a decision any monies that were unspent would go back to Plum Creek.”>/p>
Carroll says, generally speaking, the fees do not cover staff salaries but instead involve paying consultants, legal fees and miscellaneous expenses for public hearings. Cathy Johnson of the Natural Resources Council of Maine says she was aware that LURC had received money, but was surprised to learn just how much. Johnson says there were about 30 intervenors in the LURC proceeding. The majority – about 20 of them – were supporters of Plum Creek’s plan. NRCM was not.
And even though the LURC process is over Johnson says she now has more questions. “One of the issues that LURC considers when considering an application is the level of public support, and I think that having the applicant pay to have people come in and testify in a particular way raises some real questions about the process and it’s something the Attorney General’s office may need to look into.”
Assistant Attorney General Jerry Reid, who represents LURC, declined to comment for this story. The NRCM is one of several environmental groups that is challenging LURC’s approval of the Plum Creek plan in court. The Piscataquis County Economic Development Council has signaled that it may want to defend LURC’s decision in that proceeding as well.
But Thomas Kittredge says doing so will require more financial support from Plum Creek. One group that declined to solicit or accept money from Plum Creek is the town of Greenville on the edge of Moosehead Lake. Town Manager John Simko says his members were divided over the project.