Moosehead Lake, Photo by Sarah Jane Shangraw
What happens when the nation’s largest private landowner proposes a large-scale development in the heart of Maine’s wilderness, that great expanse of forest and hidden lakes that Mainers consider their backyard?
Conflict and polarization. That’s the scenario that was unfolding in late 2005 and early 2006 after Plum Creek Timber Corporation requested that Maine’s Land Use Regulatory Commission (LURC) rezone 426,000 acres of Plum Creek land in the Moosehead Lake region so the company could develop 975 homes and two large-scale resorts. In exchange, Plum Creek promised to implement various conservation measures, including trail easements, forestry restrictions and permanent shorefront conservation. Critics saw a windfall, and a contentious battle ensued, complete with heated public meetings and extensive media attention.
Believing that objective analysis might temper the increasing polarization and help both sides reach a middle ground, OSI stepped into the fray. Through an economic analysis, OSI’s Conservation Institute sought to understand the net financial benefit to Plum Creek stockholders under the two opposing scenarios: development permissible under existing zoning and development if the new zoning application was approved by LURC.
Why is such information important? Because while how much money a landowner makes is not a factor in LURC’s decision-making, it does shed light on whether Plum Creek’s proposal provides “a reasonable and publicly beneficial balance between development and conservation,” which is a key criteria for LURC approval of concept plans. “As a practical matter, understanding financial return enables stakeholders, including critics of the plan, to develop alternatives that are economically viable for Plum Creek,” said Peter Howell, OSI’s executive vice president. “It helps to define the shape of a workable compromise.”
Working with the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center at the University of Maine and Industrial Economics, Inc., and with financial support from various foundations in Maine and Massachusetts (including the Davis Conservation Foundation, Merck Family Fund, Orchard Foundation, Kendall Foundation, Horizon Foundation, Bingham Betterment Fund, Jessie B. Cox Foundation, and Sudbury Foundation), the Conservation Institute assembled a team of economists and land use experts to conduct an independent financial assessment of the project. Over the course of 2006, the Conservation Institute produced three reports on this analysis. They are available for download here.
This analysis showed that Plum Creek stood to earn about $85 million from its proposed development of 975 lots versus $50 million were it to develop up to 800 lots without a zoning change. It earned more under the rezoning because it could build more lots in a shorter period of time in a concentrated area than it could without rezoning. OSI also analyzed and valued Plum Creek’s conservation commitments, a key part of the equation. The findings suggest that Plum Creek could significantly increase its conservation efforts and/or decrease its development and still earn a significant financial return.
In early 2007, multiple op-eds in the Bangor Daily News cited OSI’s analysis, furthering the public understanding of Plum Creek’s plan. Shortly after, Plum Creek announced that it would revise its plan in order to cluster development and increase shoreline protection.