State officials on Tuesday began grappling with the weighty question of what constitutes real “land conservation” as they plunged ever deeper into their review of Plum Creek’s historic development proposal for the Moosehead Lake region.
For the past nine months, Plum Creek officials and their supporters have touted the conservation component of the company’s housing and resort plan as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to permanently protect more than 400,000 acres of forestland in Maine’s North Woods.
But that conservation proposal – reportedly the second largest in U.S. history – has come under fire in recent weeks. The Land Use Regulation Commission spent most of Tuesday listening to arguments about whether the suite of conservation agreements tied to Plum Creek’s development plan will adequately protect the woods, waters and wildlife of the Moosehead region.
Opponents have criticized Plum Creek and its partners for proposing to allow the placement of wind farms, cell towers and large backcountry “huts” within the conservation zones.
Other controversial activities that will be allowed on some of the conservation land include gravel mining, water extraction and the limited spreading of septic sludge.
“Is the new standard going to be that commercial and residential development in the [conservation] easement … is going to be permitted to offset residential development?” asked Wendy Weiger, a member of the intervenor group Moosehead Region Futures Committee.
Seattle-based Plum Creek is seeking LURC authorization of a concept plan that would allow the company to create 975 house lots and two large resorts near Maine’s largest lake. It is the single largest development plan ever submitted to state regulators.
LURC concept plan guidelines require applicants to offset, or “balance,” the impacts of the development by setting aside conservation land. So the company has offered conservation easements on 91,000 acres that would remain a working forest with guaranteed public access in perpetuity.
Additionally, Plum Creek negotiated separate conservation deals with The Nature Conservancy and the Appalachian Mountain Club that would protect another 340,000-plus acres in the region.
But the company has further angered some critics by clearly stating that the private land deals are contingent on LURC approval of Plum Creek’s development plan.
Those private conservation deals, which would net Plum Creek $35 million, involve working forest easements on 266,000 acres and land sales to the two groups on about 75,000 acres.
Representatives of the Forest Society of Maine, The Nature Conservancy and the Appalachian Mountain Club were questioned for hours about how the deals were negotiated and the industrial activities allowed within the conservation zones.
Alan Hutchinson, executive director of the Forest Society of Maine, said these easements are unique because they wrap so tightly around existing communities. The provisions on cell towers, septic spreading fields and water extraction were included to accommodate the needs of the local communities, he said.
While Hutchinson said he would not object to removing some uses or changing language within the easement, he added, “We think this is a very solid easement and is very enforceable.”
But several critics suggested that Plum Creek could easily find locations for those activities within the 20,000-acre development zone or on other company land, including the 8,000 acres it owns in Greenville.
Ronald Kreisman, an attorney with whom LURC has contracted to help review the Plum Creek application, said the arguments appear to fall into two generic categories.
The first group believes eliminating the potential for any residential development within the conservation zones is sufficient protection and meets the offset requires. The other group, meanwhile, wants to see the land protected in a “forever wild” state without human interference.
“I think what the commission is going to be asked to do … is figure out where on that spectrum this balance easement should go,” Kreisman said.
LURC is expected to continue discussing conservation-related aspects of Plum Creek’s plan today. Technical hearings are expected to wrap up this week, but a final decision is likely months away.
By Kevin Miller
23 January 2008
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