I spent most of the day yesterday at the final public hearing, the fourth of four, of the Maine Land Use Regulation Commission, known statewide as LURC, regarding the current version of the Plum Creek proposal for the rezoning of much of Plum Creek's land here in northern Maine. My heart goes out to the LURC commissioners who had to sit through not only this meeting but three prior ones just listening to opinions being expressed over and over and over again.
The Plum Creek plan for Maine was first introduced in 2005 but has been revised more than once because of public concerns over the potential impact of taking a significant amount of undeveloped land out of forestry use and selling it to "highest and best use" developers. The plan proposes around 1,000 new house lots in various locations and two major resorts with hotels, golf courses, condominiums, restaurants, shops, etc.
Proponents cite the economic benefits for the Moosehead Lake area such as:
* the increase in construction worker and specialized contractor jobs
* more opportunities for local school graduates to return to the area to begin careers
* a higher head count for the hospital and school - both of which are currently underutilized
* a general long-term economic boost to the region
* the loss of prime recreational land to development
* loss of the image of the Moosehead area as pristine and wild forest land
* loss of appeal of this area to the new industry of envirotourism
* economic pressures that would drive out many of the current local residents, especially if the building phase accelerates and new construction workers increase the demand for existing homes in the area
* increased demand on the Town of Greenville for public services despite the fact that none of the development would increase the tax base of the town
* the prospect of short-term economic boom during construction followed by economic decline with the influx of low-paid service workers
* the impact on nature including the possibly endangered Canada Lynx and the almost invisible wolf population
Although the plan calls for resort and housing development of 20,000 acres, it also proposes "conservation" easements of over 400,000 acres of Plum Creek land in the Moosehead area. This so-called conservation is meant to offset the environmental impact of the development. But the conservation plans, while encouraging some recreational trail development and ensuring public access to waterways, also ensure continuation of the current forestry use as well as other potential industrial uses including groundwater extraction, sewage disposal, gravel mining, cell phone towers, and even wind farms, windmills on some of the highest mountains in the area. Uncertainty and controversy exist over the wording of conservation agreements which might leave the door open for undetermined and unwanted industrial use of the land while closing the door on any entity charged with overseeing and enforcing the conservation plans. According to testimony at yesterday's hearing and elsewhere, Plum Creek already holds the distinguished position of being the Maine timberlands owner with the largest fine for violation of Maine forest and wildlife protection laws. Many in Maine feel that there's no reason to extend trust to Plum Creek, that due diligence should be in order to protect the interests of the Maine people in this land which is entirely located in unorganized townships.
Proponents suggest that this is privately owned land and the owners should be free to do whatever they wish with it while opponents claim that because this is unorganized land under the jurisdiction of Maine government and LURC, the people of Maine have a stake and their interests are represented by the zoning process.
To say that this is a complicated issue significantly understates the problem.
So my heart went out to the LURC officials and staff - not to mention the dozen or more police officers charged with protecting the meeting from the threats of enviroterrorists - while both proponents and opponents as well as those caught in the middle offered, one at a time, the same opinions over and over again.
There must be a better way.
For instance, at the start of the meeting the LURC chairman asked the spectators to refrain from applause. Yet, most of the people in attendance simply wanted their voices heard either for or against the proposal. Some giving testimony were recruited to do so and probably would have testified no matter what, but of those who were not recruited, it would have been more satisfying to them and certainly far more efficient had they not been required to make their voices heard one at a time, three minutes apiece, but rather had been allowed to make themselves heard in bursts of applause and cheering early in the meeting while perhaps prepared lists of issues were read. There has to be a better way for the public to express itself than to sit through eight plus hours of boring testimony of individual opinions.
Otherwise we're all left with the impression that this meeting was simply a bureaucratic technicality, that nothing was really gained other than appeasing the concern that the public hasn't been heard.