Plum Creek's Big Plan

By Phyllis Austin, Maine Environmental News ( 2/10/05

In mid-December of 2004 Plum Creek announced its plans for the largest subdivision in Maine’s history – approximately 1,000 house lots, two resorts and other enterprises -- on an array of high quality lakes and ponds.

When Plum Creek Timber Company bought 900,000 acres – 1,400 square miles – of Maine woods in 1998, it bought more than trees. It bought mountains along the Appalachian Trail, tens of wild trout ponds, miles of land flanking the Kennebec and Moose rivers and over 60 miles of shoreline along Moosehead Lake.

The acquisition made conservationists nervous. On its lands in the Pacific Northwest and Rockies, the Seattle-based company had earned a reputation for spinning off parcels of land to the highest bidder and subdividing timberlands. But Plum Creek denied intentions to subdivide the newly acquired Maine lands, saying it was only interested in doing sustainable forestry in the Pine Tree state.

In 2002, however, Plum Creek created an 89-lot development on relatively remote First Roach Pond (see Phyllis Austin story) north of Greenville. The lots sold quickly, but a Plum Creek spokesman said no more development was on the horizon.

In mid-December of 2004 Plum Creek announced its plans for the largest subdivision in Maine’s history – approximately 1,000 house lots, two resorts and other enterprises -- on an array of high quality lakes and ponds. All of the proposed development would be sited in the Moosehead Lake area, a gateway to Maine’s vast northwestern backcountry.

Not only does the sale further fragment the Maine woods – the country’s largest expanse of undeveloped woodlands east of the Mississippi – it also promises to stress the capacity of the Land Use Regulation Commission (LURC), the planning and zoning agency for Maine’s 10.5-million acre unorganized territory, where there is no local zoning. LURC has never considered a proposal even a quarter the size of this one.

Details Emerge Slowly

Plum Creek expects to submit its permit application to LURC by March. The agency is already bracing for the review. "It’s big, huge, unprecedented, the biggest project we’ve seen since Big A [dam plan], the largest development proposal in our history," says LURC’s director Catherine Carroll.

Until Plum Creek submits the application, there are few official details of the project. Plum Creek Communications Director Kathy Budinick says the plan was only recently hatched, and the specifics are still being worked out.

The company will seek approval of its proposal under the "lake concept" zoning option, which allows a faster pace of development than usual in exchange for conservation. The key hurdle for a landowner is to offer enough publicly beneficial conservation to "balance" the impact of development. Lake concept zoning was designed to encourage landowners to do long-range planning as an alternative to haphazard, incremental development.

What is known about Plum Creek’s proposal is this basic outline:

Of the 415,000 acres included in the plan, about half the Maine land it owns, Plum Creek would develop 14,000 acres, leaving 95 percent of that tract in commercial timberland management. Six thousand acres would go to about 1,000 camp lots – half on the shoreline of various waters with existing development and half on back lots (with one exception, all of the lakes already have some development). Another 6,000 acres would go to resort development. One thousand acres in Greenville would be allocated to a business park and another 1,000 acres to low-income housing. To balance the development, Plum Creek is willing to place in permanent conservation a 500-foot buffer around the shoreline of 50 undeveloped ponds.

Plum Creek is also proposing other conservation initiatives, although they are outside the lake concept plan. The company has offered to create permanent easements for 43 miles of new hiking and cross-country ski trails and 75 miles of existing snowmobile trails. It is willing to sell to the state 37,000 acres bordering the Appalachian Trail’s Hundred Mile Wilderness. Included in that deal would be No. 5 Bog near Attean Pond and land around Second and Third Roach ponds – tracts the Bureau of Parks and Lands has been wanting for some time.

It seems the company’s large Maine holdings include a carrot to dangle before every interested nose. But this should be no surprise; Plum Creek’s shrewd business deals have made it a very profitable real estate company. While Plum Creek likes to characterize itself as a timber company, it has been organized as a Real Estate Investment Trust for several years. Buying, logging, subdividing and then selling woodlands has been a lucrative practice for Plum Creek.

Promises Made and Broken

The first lands Plum Creek acquired in New England were the 905,000 acres it bought from SAPPI Fine Paper. SAPPI had owned the land only four years, after purchasing it from S. D. Warren, part of the old Scott Paper domain. The acquisition was part of a recent cascade of timberland deals. In the last six years, seven million acres of Maine’s commercial forestland have been sold, much of it to short-term financial investors and wealthy individuals.

When news got out that SAPPI was selling, a spokesman reassured the public that the company had no intention of selling the land to a developer but soon inked the deal with Plum Creek, whose meteoric rise was based on cutting its timberlands hard, then subdividing them. Rod Chandler, a Republican congressman from Washington, once characterized Plum Creek as a "Darth Vader" of the forest industry because of its rapacious forest practices.

But Plum Creek officials professed to be interested only in timber management on its new Maine lands. Rick Holley, Plum Creek’s president and CEO, told the Portland Press Herald on Oct. 7, 1998, that the company had no plans to sell land for vacation homes, camps or other types of development. In the Maine Sunday Telegram four days later, Bill Brown, Plum Creek’s vice president of business development, reiterated that Plum Creek wasn’t really in the development business. The Western shorefront lots listed on its website for sale had "no other use" than for vacation retreats, he explained.

Bruce Farling, executive director of Montana Trout Unlimited and a longtime Plum Creek observer, says Brown was brought into the Plum Creek operation from Texas to use his real estate experience to further the company’s fortunes. With Brown on board, Plum Creek became "far more savy" about development than timberland management, according to Farling, and greatly expanded the real estate side of the business in Montana and elsewhere. Before putting up parcels for sale, Farling says, Plum Creek does a lot of homework determining what neighbors’ reactions will be and what the value of the land is to the public.

Plum Creek’s first development undertaking in Maine turned out to be plenty valuable to the company, as lots went like hotcakes. The quick success of the 89-lot subdivision on First Roach Pond in Kokadjo, a logging and fishing outpost 18 miles north of Greenville, stirred up latent fears about Plum Creek’s real game plan for Maine. "They’re doing exactly what we feared – slicing and dicing the best of Maine’s North Woods into second home development," commented Cathy Johnson of the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

First Roach was the largest development ever to go before LURC.

First Roach was the largest development ever to go before LURC. Plum Creek’s director of land management, Mike yea Yeager, stated there were no more First Roaches on the horizon, despite the fact there were more than 100 lakes and ponds and sizeable rivers in the company’s ownership. Yet the Wall Street Journal reported that Plum Creek intended to accelerate its subdivision pace.

In 2003, Plum Creek representatives began meeting with LURC staff to talk about a comprehensive development/conservation project. The company hired planner Brian Kent of Gardiner to come up with a design. (He did the First Roach plan.) Also joining the Plum Creek team were consultant Elizabeth Swain, a former LURC chairperson and once on the staff of Maine Audubon and realtor Luke Muzzy, who had handled the lot sales on First Roach Pond.

Despite Plum Creek’s contradictory statements about developing its Maine lands, company spokeswoman Budinick says Maine conservationists should feel confident that the company will do the right thing.

"People in Maine should trust Plum Creek because we have carefully considered them in our plans," says Budinick. "The company is developing a comprehensive plan that takes into account the important community values and needs of the area. "Our plan – which ensures that 95 percent of the land the company owns in the plan area will be retained a a working forest – will help maintain the economic viability of the forest products industry, preserve lands with significant conservation values, promote permanent recreation access to key trails, and stimulate job creation and economic development."

Overwhelming the Overseers

In recent years, LURC has been downsized so much that director Catherine Carroll doesn’t know at this point how the staff will handle such an enormous proposal.
(Photo: Phyllis Austin)

As Plum Creek’s application looms, there’s a real question about LURC's ability to handle a project of this size. In recent years, the agency has been downsized so much that director Catherine Carroll doesn’t know at this point how the staff will handle such an enormous proposal. She is weighing how to allocate her agency’s skimpy staff and budget resources to the deal with Plum Creek, as well as the agency’s routine work.

"We’ve got to pull back our ears, pull up our bootstraps and do what we can," Carroll says. It will take months to review the application and hold a series of public hearings. Carroll plans to assign one of her senior planning staffers to the project fulltime and go to outside help for an economic analysis of Plum Creek’s application. Plum Creek has offered to provide the money needed for LURC to "keep on top of this," Carroll says, but she doesn’t yet know what a "fair and reasonable fee for our services" would be.

LURC never anticipated that the lake concept plan would be used to rezone so much of the unorganized territory, especially in such short a time as is being proposed. The option sat unused for several years, after it was created in 1990. Large paper companies still owned most of LURC jurisdiction, and they weren’t interested in large-scale subdivision.

When landowners finally began to take advantage of the option, it was for no more than a few ponds at a time. Lowell & Company Timber Associates, a Boston investment group, was the first to propose a concept plan, three years after purchasing 17,000 acres of forestland on Attean and Holeb ponds from the Coburn Lands Trust. William Gardner proposed a lake concept plan for Snake and Carpenter lakes north of Baxter State Park, but it was rejected by LURC. Both subdivision proposals were smaller than Plum Creek’s First Roach Pond project.

John Willard designed a 50-lot lake concept plan for Brassua Lake, and there was little fanfare when LURC approved it in 2004. Linkletter & Sons Inc. recently proposed a concept plan for Whetstone, Foss and Hilton ponds near Abbott. Others may be in the works, and some environmentalists think it’s time for LURC to re-evaluate the impact of concept plans, especially given the scale of Plum Creek’s.

The Plum Creek proposal is so enormous that it will further delay LURC from attending to its big picture planning responsibilities. Carroll agrees that work updating LURC’s comprehensive land use plan inevitably will be slowed down. The plan is required by law to be updated every 10 years, and the deadline is 2007. Carroll still aims to have it completed in 2006, but only time will tell if that’s possible.

LURC’s capability to move forward with prospective zoning will be zero. Prospective zoning, which involves intense community participation, is designed to reinforce the special character of a region for the long-term, including commercial and natural resources. It’s also designed to control new development based on historic growth. The first such plan was approved for the Rangeley Lakes area in late 2001, and either Greenville or Carrabassett Valley was scheduled to be next.

Whether Plum Creek’s proposal could be allowed under a prospective zoning plan is unclear, according to Carroll. If LURC were to delay processing the development application until the comprehensive plan and prospective zoning for Greenville are in place, the agency would be in a proactive, not a reactive, position to respond to Plum Creek. But that would take years, and nobody is suggesting such a delay.

Drumming Up Support

Before last Christmas, Plum Creek met local officials and other guests at the Greenville Inn to outline the development proposal and also announce an agreement to purchase 48,500 acres from Hancock Timber Resources in the Moosehead and Sebec regions. But Plum Creek had already been meeting with environmental groups – The Natural Resources Council of Maine (NRCM), RESTORE: the North Woods, Maine Audubon and the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) – to introduce them to the plan and try to enlist their support.

Jim Glavine, co-founder of Friends of Moosehead Lake and a director of the NRCM board, was among those present at the Greenville Inn. "Friends of Moosehead have been campaigning hard for the conservation of Plum Creek lands," says Glavine. The plan includes a large percentage of what the Friends wants saved, but not all. Glavine pressed Plum Creek officials on the issue of permanent versus temporary conservation aspects of their proposal but says they "didn’t really answer the questions." Still, Glavine believes there are potential benefits to the project. "My concern is that we not start off kicking [Plum Creek] in the nose."

Although Glavine spoke out against the First Roach Pond development, neither he nor Friends are ready to take a position on the new Plum Creek proposal. He credits the company with being smart and professional and believes it will be willing to make changes in the plan to assuage peoples’ concerns. "But when it comes down, it’s not us they will make deals with but LURC," he says.

Maine’s major environmental groups are still open-minded about the project. Their decisions will likely hinge on how much conservation land is included and whether the conservation is permanent. Some news reports mistakenly had the AMC on the endorsement list. The club has not yet taken a position, says AMC’s deputy director, Walter Graff, but he adds that already the organization sees the proposal "could have a lot of merit." Graff commends Plum Creek for being willing to work out a plan with local communities, the state and other stakeholders, but the conservation part needs to be long-lasting, he says.

Plum Creek owns a large chunk of the Hundred Mile Wilderness region along the Appalachian Trail.

AMC is one of the many groups that had reason to be on Plum Creek’s good side. Plum Creek owns a large chunk of the Hundred Mile Wilderness region, and it’s the only landowner between AMC’s recent acquisition in the area and the hundreds of thousands of acres of contiguous conservation lands bordering Baxter State Park.

Groups such as NRCM and RESTORE want permanent conservation of significant lands. They point out that Plum Creek’s conservation commitment would extend only 30 years, the life of the special lake concept zoning under which the company will apply. After that time period, Plum Creek would be free to propose more development. Environmentalists also point out that Plum Creek is being tight-lipped about plans for the other half of its ownership, south of Greenville. They are concerned that the company may have big development plans there, too, especially since Plum Creek is talking about completing the subdivision of their northern tract in 10 to 15 years, not 30 years.

After two meetings with Plum Creek representatives, Cathy Johnson says the major issues for NRCM are the amount and location of development and the kind of conservation. The number of lots being proposed is five to 10 times more than the largest subdivision ever reviewed by the agency, she says. To put the scale of development in perspective, Johnson points out that the town of Greenville has a total of 700 residences. Based on the average rate of development of new homes in the unorganized territory, "we would expect to see about 250 new homes in an area of this size over the next 30 years, Johnson says.

Fred Todd, LURC’s division manager of planning and administration, has done some figuring himself. His preliminary calculation is that Plum Creek, by jumping through the proper hoops, could develop 900 to 1,000 lots over the next 30 years without using the lake concept plan option. That’s about the number Plum Creek is proposing. However, by using the lake concept alternative, Plum Creek can achieve development predictability on half of its ownership and avoid the unknowns of piecemeal subdivision.

Cathy Johnson notes that Plum Creek’s lots north of Greenville will be far from municipal services, such as police and fire protection, schools, hospitals and mail delivery. As with sprawl elsewhere in New England, diffuse development often ends up having a high price tag in terms of municipal, state and federal dollars.

In its last briefing with NRCM, Plum Creek named the ponds it has targeted for development, in addition to Brassua and Moosehead lakes: Long, Luther, Knight, Fish, Center, Burnham, Indian, Prong, Upper Wilson, and Ellis ponds; also Moose River. If the proposed sale of Second and Third Roach ponds aren’t sold to the state, Plum Creek will subdivide those, as well as Penobscot.

Most of the ponds are rated as Class 7 by LURC. Brassua, Long and Indian are Class 3 (potentially suitable for development) and Upper Wilson is in Class 4 (high-value, developer). Burnham, in Class 7, is the only pond on the list with no development. When LURC devised its rating system many years ago, Moosehead was deemed approaching heavily developed status, or Class 5.

Besides LURC’s limited staff, the statutory deadlines for filings worry NRCM. They may not provide enough time for evaluating such a huge project and allowing adequate public involvement, Johnson says. "It is important that LURC should not feel pressured to rush through the permitting process."

RESTORE has been promoting a Maine Woods National Park proposal for over a decade. The Plum Creek subdivision is in stark contrast to this vision for the area.
(Photo: CS Monitor)

"Ideally the state would have a comprehensive plan for areas of this size, developed with public input," Johnson says. "Such a plan would designate those areas that are priorities for conservation and those areas suitable for development, and the amount and location of orderly development before being faced with development of this magnitude."

Jym St. Pierre, Maine director of RESTORE, has been by his own admission the "most consistent critic of the lake concept plans done to date. I have argued that none of the lake plans presented so far – including Attean Lake, Snake and Carpenter ponds, First Roach and Brassua -- met the conservation/development balance test," says St. Pierre, a former LURC staffer.

"While some of the projects have had good conservation aspects, I believe none has met the legal test to merit approval," he says. The new Plum Creek project pushes the question of whether the concept plan "has failed as an experiment," in St. Pierre’s opinion.

RESTORE has been promoting a Maine Woods National Park proposal for over a decade. The Plum Creek subdivision is in stark contrast to St. Pierre’s vision for the area.

"If these lands were part of a national park and preserve, they would be protected for their natural features and made available forever for appropriate public use," he says. "There would be no subdivision of lakeshores into hundreds of second home lots. There would be no resorts sited in high visibility areas to capitalize on the views. Rather people would be able to enjoy the wild character of the region in traditional ways."

Not everyone is anxious about the plan. For some residents of the Greenville-Rockwood area, Plum Creek’s proposal sounds like a godsend because of the economic boost it would produce. Greenville Town Manager John Simko is supportive, predicting that the project would attract new business to the area, increase the population and attract more tourists. Some organizations are already on board with Plum Creek, notably the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine and the Maine Snowmobile Association.

Maine Woods Mega-Resorts?

Among those keeping a close eye on Plum Creek’s proposal are other Maine woods developers. John Willard’s lake concept plan will share Brassua Lake with Plum Creek, which owns most of the rest of the shoreline.

Willard has lived and worked in the Moosehead area for decades, and offers that he isn’t in a position to complain about Plum Creek’s proposal since he is a subdivider himself. A founder of Friends of Moosehead, he asserts that he took steps he didn’t have to do to insure that his Brassua development is environmentally sensitive and attractive to people who value quiet and low-key recreation.

He questions whether Plum Creek’s development will be expensive, glitzy and high impact. But "no one wants to stand up and say it’s lousy" now because the details aren’t available, Willard says. He reported that people he has talked with wonder if the project will increase the area’s population to the point that current residents "wouldn’t want to be here anymore."

Larry Warren of Western Mountains Foundation (WMF) has been negotiating with Plum Creek for three years to identify a corridor between Carrabassett and Moosehead for a cross-country ski hut and trail corridor (see Phyllis Austin story). Plum Creek is the largest landowner WMF has to deal with to secure the route.

"We’ve presented them with a concept plan of where we want to go, and they’ve given their preliminary approval." WMF would buy a permanent easement on the Plum Creek land because, Warren says, we need to "nail down the corridor while we can, given changing ownership patterns."

Warren thinks Plum Creek’s proposal is decidedly ambitious yet credits the company with being willing to be candid with its neighbors about the long-term desires for the ownership. Because of his background in the ski resort business, Warren is curious about Plum Creek’s resort plans.

Warren was a key official at Sugarloaf Mountain Resort for years and still lives at Sugarloaf. He has witnessed dramatic development on the mountain and, just in the last two years, significant development despite the financial troubles of owner American Ski Company. "What is moving and the prices is somewhat startling," Warren says, reporting that condos are selling for up to a half million dollars, with building "change orders" of equal magnitude from buyers. With plenty of disposable income and individuals’ interest in owning "kingdom tracts" and vacation mansions, he speculates that interior Maine may be more interesting than ever to the wealthy, now that many Western resort areas have become saturated with development.

Plum Creek has mentioned a marina as part of the resort plan for Moosehead Lake’s Lily Bay, the location of one of Maine’s most attractive state parks.
(Photo: Dominic Jonak)

Warren believes that Maine may be ready for mega-resorts, such as the Yellowstone Club in Montana and Club Intrawest in Tremblant, Quebec, and seven other locations in Canada and the U. S. The Yellowstone Club is an ultra-private resort for the very rich, and membership is tightly controlled. It is sited on land that Plum Creek sold to club founder Tim Blixseth, a rags-to-extreme riches entrepreneur who has consistently run afoul of environmental regulations. He thinks Maine may be ripe for exclusive resorts with golf courses, marinas and ski areas – the model for the most expensive developments. "I’m sure Plum Creek is aware of them," Warren says. Indeed, Plum Creek has mentioned a marina as part of the resort plan for Moosehead Lake’s Lily Bay, the location of one of Maine’s most attractive state parks.

The resort aspect of the deal is nebulous so far. The company is not a resort developer, so it would sell its development rights to another party to build such a facility. "I’m going to want a clear idea [about Plum Creek’s resorts]," says LURC’s Carroll. "Will they be the Las Vegas-type or Little Lyford Pond Camps? Will they have hotel and condominium development associated with them?"

This is just one of the many questions people are asking about Plum Creek’s plans, now that the development question has shifted from if to when and how.

Go to archive of Phyllis Austin Reports for Maine Environmental News (