For a snapshot of what Plum Creek Timber Co. might do with prime real estate land, Montana can look 2,000 miles away to the North Woods of Maine.
In April 2005, the company submitted a 570-page “concept plan” for the Moosehead Lake region. It is the largest development ever proposed in Maine – 58 subdivisions, 975 lots, two resorts, a golf course, a marina, three RV parks, convenience stores, gas stations, beauty salons, gated communities, condos and more than 100 rental cabins.
Plum Creek needed to rezone about 426,000 acres from forestry and recreation uses to allow for commercial and residential development.
As soon as the scope and location of the project sank in, the public outcry began.
“This is an incredible, special area,” said Cathy Johnson, project manager for the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “And 400,000 acres is only half of the land they own in Maine.”>/p>
Moosehead Lake’s Web site describes its beauty: island-studded waters, scenic mountain ranges, pristine resources, gorgeous forestland, long lists of wildlife. It’s a large, freshwater lake that attracts four-season visitors to ski, hike, ride whitewater on rivers, camp and snowmobile.
Glaciers carved more than 1,200 natural ponds and lakes in the area, which has a rich American Indian history. Henry David Thoreau explored and described the region in the 1800s. Moosehead Lake has 400 miles of shoreline, more than double the 185 miles of shoreline of western Montana’s Flathead Lake.
“Until recently, Moosehead Lake was an insider’s secret, a place known to Maine families, hard-core sportsmen and downhill skiers,” the Web site says. Today, “it is quietly becoming the destination for eco-tourists, nature lovers and those seeking a refuge from the bustle and stress of their busy lives.”
“Moosehead Lake is like Flathead Lake,” said Bruce Farling, executive director of Montana Trout Unlimited. “In Maine, it’s a very beloved place. What this would do is change, overnight, the whole custom and culture that people in Maine love.”
Newspapers and conservation groups used words like “massive,” “sweeping,” “huge,” “unprecedented in Maine history” to describe Plum Creek’s proposal. One map detailing the plan was titled “Recipe for Sprawl.”
But it had supporters, too. Nearby towns like Greenville and Guilford, whose histories are tied to forest products, have struggled as the timber industry has changed. Some community leaders liked the shot in the arm new construction and development would bring.
One estimate of a revised version of the plan figured the development would generate 1,300 long-term jobs, increase personal income by
$61 million, generate $1.38 million in tax revenue and add $25 million in new recreation spending.
Plum Creek proposed placing 95 percent to 98 percent of the land into conservation easements and “working forest” use, leaving it undeveloped. A majority of about 70 ponds and lakes on the property also would be untouched, said Jim Lehner, Plum Creek’s regional general manager in Maine.
“It is a heck of a commitment to say you are going to take 98 percent of your land off the table for development,” he said. “That’s gotten a lot of favorable comment.”
The design concentrates development to make best use of roads and services, and provides public access to favorite hunting and fishing spots, he said.
“There are plenty of people in Maine who either support the plan or realize that this is a pretty good option,” said Kathy Budinick, Plum Creek’s communications director, based in Seattle.
Still, community leaders, residents, environmental groups and conservationists have complaints and concerns: It puts development in remote areas instead of close to existing infrastructure. It puts more than 1,000 buildings on important wildlife and recreation lands. It would scatter subdivisions and destroy undeveloped beauty and wilderness. It would jeopardize the nature-based economy of the area.
Some believe it would overwhelm nearby towns – Greenville, the historic gate to the Moosehead region, has about 1,623 residents in 731 households with a median annual income of $30,365, according to the 2000 census.
The company also wants an exemption from state laws discouraging side-by-side houses on shorelines, according to the Natural Resources Council of Maine.
The council’s conclusion, after studying the first and second draft of the proposal: It’s the wrong type of development in the wrong place. Plum Creek wowed residents with slick advertising campaigns, PowerPoints and promises, but in the end, gave little and took lots, Johnson said.
“It is classic Plum Creek,” said Farling, a longtime company watcher and critic. “They produce voluminous documents loaded with fluff. When it comes right down to it, it doesn’t contain a lot of important information you need.”
So much public scrutiny is welcome and good – in fact, that’s how the process should work, Lehner said. It is not a finished document, and has already been retooled once to incorporate feedback.
“We’ve revised it, and we are revising it some more, based on public input,” Budinick said.
Plum Creek’s experience in Maine is part of the company’s learning curve as it shifts from a narrow-focus timber company to one that deals with subdivisions, real estate development and land-use proposals, too.
“One of the things we learned is the importance of engaging with the community,” Budinick said. “You’ll see us do more of that in the future.
“We will never be able to satisfy everybody. But there is more compromise to be done.”
“The most important lesson we learned is: Read the details,” Johnson said. “The conservation easements (in the first plan) sounded nice but when you read the details, they weren’t permanent. … Plum Creek’s plan would allow 5,000-square-foot boat houses to be built over the water – basically not allowed now. It’s the sort of thing you only get by reading the details.”
Maine’s seven-member, state-level Land Use Regulation Commission has jurisdiction over the plan and its future. The commission is understaffed and under-budgeted, but it still provides a predictable, public framework for discussing such issues, Farling said.
“They have teeth in their regulatory commission,” he said. “People in Maine would not have a handle on this if they didn’t have the forethought to have a land-use planning process in place.”
“In Montana, we haven’t thought how we want to limit and steer growth, how we want to encourage quality development in our rural areas,” he said.
“Until we do that, we are going to have one battle, then another battle, then another. Plum Creek is slicing off one piece here, one piece there. We don’t have a broad view.”
When Plum Creek submitted its second, retooled plan for Moosehead Lake last spring, the company called it “significantly revised.” The Nature Conservancy, the Forest Society of Maine and the Appalachian Mountain Club worked with the company to propose permanent conservation and public-access agreements on more than 400,000 acres. Plum Creek proposed a Community Fund, financed by development, to pay for impacts on community services and infrastructure.
According to Plum Creek, the second plan pulled proposed development from remote ponds; reduced the number of shorefront lots; added Nordic ski and bike trail systems and hiking trails; scaled back one proposed resort at Lily Bay by more than 80 percent; and removed campgrounds, remote cabins, sporting camps and a request for additional commercial industrial zoning.
It also moved proposed development sites from remote locations closer to the existing towns of Rockwood and Greenville to address concerns about developing too far from existing roads and services, the company said.
Critics dubbed the changes “minor.”
“It was 90 percent the same as the first plan,” Johnson said. More than 100 lots are proposed in critical deer wintering areas; more than 200 are so remote they would not have access to municipal power; some lots on Moosehead Lake are more than 35 miles from Greenville and so remote they are not even accessible by logging roads.
Much of the permanent conservation easements will be purchased, and now are contingent on the company getting its plan approved, a hammer over the head of state officials, Johnson said.
“One of the concerns we have: Is this just phase one? Are we looking at other developments?” Johnson said.
Where is the proposal today? Public hearings were to begin in May, but Plum Creek has withdrawn its revised 2006 proposal, to rework it even more.
That third revision should be available in a few weeks, Budinick said.
Plum Creek deserves a chance to make the development work, and should be applauded for trying to answer local concerns, said an editorial in the Portland Press Herald when the first rewrite was under way. The paper also in part blamed locals for the controversy, because they couldn’t agree on a comprehensive plan for the area years ago.
In late January, the newspaper editorialized again, on Plum Creek’s latest rewriting of the plan.
“It’s vital that the company settle on a thoughtful plan that addresses the economic development potential of the Moosehead area in a way that respects and enhances the matchless landscape and recreational assets that make it a national jewel,” the editorial said.