State regulators on Wednesday reluctantly postponed public hearings on Plum Creek’s development plan for the Moosehead Lake region after the company submitted more changes to its massive application.
The Land Use Regulation Commission had planned to begin its long-awaited public review of Plum Creek’s application on Nov. 3 with a hearing in Greenville. The commission then planned to hold two more hearings and two straight weeks of work sessions with interested parties before returning to Greenville one final time on Nov. 18.
But on Wednesday that schedule fell apart after Plum Creek offered more alterations to what is already the company’s third version of its development plan. Even without the changes, however, LURC staff predicted the commission would need to schedule additional work sessions as it grapples with the largest development proposal in Maine history.
The Seattle-based company is seeking LURC authorization to rezone land for 975 house lots and two large resorts near Moosehead Lake. But to sweeten the deal Plum Creek has offered to conserve more than 400,000 acres of forestland in the region.
The commission will set a new hearing schedule on Nov. 7. While the timetable remains unclear, it was apparent Wednesday that the public hearings and work sessions on Plum Creek’s proposal will likely extend into 2008, to the dismay of some commission members.
“Some of us aren’t going to be on the commission long enough to even get to the hearings if we continue the way we are going,” commission chairman Bart Harvey said only half-sarcastically.
At least three of the commissioners’ terms on the board expire by July 2008.
Plum Creek officials said their latest changes are intended to address concerns raised by state and federal agencies and other interested parties in submitted testimony. While some changes are technical, others are substantive.
Some of the major changes include:
. Permanent caps on development within the proposed subdivisions prohibiting future growth beyond what is currently proposed.
. State-held road easements granting public access to 57 miles of roads within the 356,000 acres of land that Plum Creek has offered to permanently protect with the help of conservation groups as part of the plan.
. Interest-free loans to construct a peak-to-peak hiking trail in the region.
. Creation of a “community stewardship fund” funded, in part, from 2 percent of the sale price of residential lots.
Luke Muzzy, senior land asset manager with Plum Creek, called the changes “very significant” and predicted that they will address many of the concerns raised by state and federal agencies.
“Every time changes have been made they were in response to people’s criticisms or concerns about the plan, so they made it a better plan,” Muzzy said.
After extended debate and a near stalemate, the commission voted 4-1 to postpone the November hearings. Because of public notice requirements, the earliest possible date for a public hearing would likely be late November or early December.
One commission member suggested delaying the hearings until February just to be safe.
Muzzy said he was disappointed that the public hearing dates were pushed back. And Plum Creek’s attorney before the commission, Ginger Davis, told LURC members that it was “incredibly important to the company to at least get started.”
The commissioners weren’t too enthused about a delay either, and several questioned how many more times Plum Creek would seek to change its proposal.
“The public perception, and I guess I’m part of the public here, is this has been a moving target from Day One,” said Stephen Wight, the commission co-chairman. “We are on the third application and this third application is being modified until who knows when.”
Commissioner Gwen Hilton said she appreciates Plum Creek’s willingness to address concerns. But Hilton said, at some point, she will need time to read through the ever-growing amount of testimony, rebuttal testimony and changes.
Aga Pinette, senior planner with LURC, also warned the commissioners that the two weeks originally slated for work sessions with interested parties would not likely be enough. As a result, the commission may have to schedule additional days or weeks of public meetings with intervenor parties.
And in related news, earlier Wednesday the commission voted unanimously to reject a petition submitted by two environmental groups seeking to dismiss the Plum Creek application on technical grounds.
RESTORE: The North Woods and the Forest Ecology Network had argued that LURC lacked the legislative or statutory authority to approve the long-term “zoning contract” proposed by Plum Creek. But LURC staff and assistant State Attorney General Jerry Reid said the authority was clearly delineated in LURC’s comprehensive land use plan, which is reviewed by the Legislature.