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Court Decision Paves Way for Massive Moosehead Development
03/15/2012   Reported By: Susan Sharon

The Maine Supreme Court today gave the green light for the Plum Creek Timber Company to move forward with its conservation and development plan for the Mooshead Lake area. The decision means that within 45 days, nearly 400,000 acres of Maine forestlands will be permanently conserved. It also means that after seven years of waiting, the company can start the permitting process to develop parcels as it sees fit.

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Maine's high court ruled unanimously that the Land Use Regulation Commission did not violate procedural rules when it considered final amendments to Plum Creek's rezoning plan without conducting an additional evidentiary hearing. That had been the complaint of several environmental groups.

A lower court judge had agreed with them. But the state appealed. And now the Maine Supreme Court has overturned that decision, paving the way for Plum Creek to begin work. Mark Doty of Plum Creek says his company is pleased to finally have the plan in place and grateful to the state for its support.

"Today's news is great but it is a very long-term plan," Doty says. "We'll get the conservation commitments in place as a first step and then consider market conditions for future development opportunities."

It's been a long and winding ride for the Plum Creek Timber Company, which first requested rezoning of the region in 2005. After multiple plan revisions, weeks of public testimony, hundreds of witnesses and reams of written comments, LURC approved the plan to develop 17,000 acres, including two resorts and hundreds of houselots in 2009. The Supreme Court's decision will almost immediately finalize a historic conservation easement.

"I am excited. I am relieved and I am ready to get going to close this conservation deal," says Mike Tetreault, the executive director of the Nature Conservancy in Maine, which will close a deal to protect 363,000 acres of working forest from development. Tetreault says the easement preserves recreation opportunities in the region, public access and keeps wood fiber flowing to Maine mills.

Its size is also significant. It's the largest contiguous conservation easement in the country. Maine is also home to the Pingree easement, which stretches across 762,000 acres, but they are scattered across the state. And now the two of them will wind up connected to each other and to other protected lands.

"These 363,000 acres sit right in the middle of a two-million acre swath that will now all be connected through conservation, starting in the St. John River, down through the West Branch of the Penobscot River, across Moosehead Lake, up into the Nahmahkanta Reserve, through the Debsconeag Lakes Wilderness and up into Baxter Park, and this was the central piece of that whole landscape," Tetreault says.

Gov. Paul LePage issued a written statement on the court's decision. He said it "affirms our belief that good land-use planning, conservation easements on working forests and expansion of the eco-economy in the Piscataquis and Somerset counties can be founded on common ground."

The governor commended Plum Creek, LURC, the conservation groups involved with the easement and the Greenville community on their achievement. Bruce Hanson is a longtime selectman from Greenville who says his board unanimously endorsed the project years ago. He views the court's decision as something positive for a region that has lost much of its forest products industry over the last few decades.

"I think it's great. I really do," Hanson says. "I was awful scared that they were going to turn it down. I just can't believe that they're going to do it, I guess. It's good. It's about time they let these people do what they gotta do and go on with their lives and we'll go on with ours."

Hanson is a maintenance worker for the school system in Greenville, which he says recently consolidated all its elementary and high school students into one building because of the exodus of students and families from the area. "So we can use anything we can get, let's put it that way," he says.

Not everyone is applauding. Several environmental groups, including the Forest Ecology Network and the Natural Resources Council of Maine, opposed the LURC process and its approval of the Plum Creek concept plan. Cathy Johnson, the North Woods project director for the NRCM, says her group is disappointed but respects the court's decision.

"Even though we're disappointed in the court's decision I think it's important for Maine people to realize that it was their active engagement in this whole process that made the final plan significantly better than what Plum Creek originally proposed," Johnson says. "And they can continue to participate in the process as Plum Creek comes forward with specific development plans."

If and when phases of the development plan are proposed by Plum Creek, they will be reviewed, there will be public input taken and each phase will have to be permitted. Mark Doty of Plum Creek says there's no doubt that the economy and market conditions have changed since 2005. The one thing the company wanted with the rezoning project was predictability in its planning process. And now, he says, it has that.


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