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Is this any place to build a home?

Ambitious development plan for a remote area of Maine generates interest, divides residents

The shores of Moosehead Lake would be transformed into a massive, upscale resort destination if Plum Creek Timber Co.’s plan is approved.
The shores of Moosehead Lake would be transformed into a massive, upscale resort destination if Plum Creek Timber Co.’s plan is approved. (Fred Field for the Boston Globe)
Email|Print| Text size + By Jenna Russell
Globe Staff / December 2, 2007

GREENVILLE, Maine - Here at the quiet edge of Maine's remote northern woods, where jobs are scarce and the future is uncertain, people see tourism as the region's last, best hope for economic prosperity.

But a sweeping plan to turn 20,000 acres of wilderness into a massive, upscale resort destination on the shores of scenic Moosehead Lake, with 975 new vacation homes and more than 1,000 hotel rooms, resort homes, and condominiums, has divided residents.

Proponents say the development - the largest ever attempted in the history of Maine's 10 million-acre unorganized territories - would pump new life into the woodsy, sparsely populated center of the state, which has been abandoned by many young families who have fled in search of jobs and where schools and hospitals have struggled to stay open.

Critics express concern that the scale of the project will degrade the rugged, untamed beauty of Maine's largest lake, described by 19th-century writer and naturalist Henry David Thoreau as a "suitably wild-looking sheet of water."

"We're at a pivotal moment that will determine the fate of the largest undeveloped area east of the Mississippi River, and we need to take time now to make sure it's done right," said Wendy Weiger, coordinator of the Moosehead Region Futures Committee, a group of residents who have closely tracked the project and pushed for conservation.

This weekend and continuing into next month, hundreds of people from across the state will join the emotional debate on the massive proposal by Plum Creek Timber Co., the largest private landowner in the United States, at public hearings in Greenville, Augusta, and Portland. Maine's Land Use Regulation Commission, a seven-member board appointed by the governor, will rule on Plum Creek's request to rezone 408,000 acres. The deci sion is expected to take months. If the board chooses to rezone the land, the developments would have to undergo a separate review process to gain approval before they could be built.

Most of the land - more than 380,000 acres - would be permanently protected under the plan, to balance the 20,000 acres earmarked for development.

The scale of the proposal has drawn unprecedented attention, said Agnieszka Pinette, a senior planner with the land commission, who said the project has generated more public interest than any other in the history of the agency.

In Greenville, a town of 1,744 people nestled at the lake's southern tip, some residents said they have avoided talk of the project, to prevent rifts among neighbors. But last week, on the eve of the public hearings, the disagreement lay just below the surface.

Inside the century-old brick-front Harris Drug Store, across the street from the wind-whipped lake, employees still blend milk- shakes at an old-fashioned soda counter. But pharmacist Mike Harris said change is inevitable and development could bring much-needed jobs and people.

"I'm pretty resigned to the fact that things are going to change," he said. "I just want to see it done right."

Outside, drinking coffee in his pickup beside the lake, where a glaze of ice coated boulders on the shoreline, retired police chief Mickey Squiers said he hopes Plum Creek will be rebuffed.

"Can big money come in here and change the rules?" he said. "Run them out, as far as they can go."

The ambitious push into Maine by Plum Creek reflects the emerging appeal of the state's inland forests for well-off second home owners and retirees. The Seattle-based company began buying vast swaths of Maine forest a decade ago, as paper companies sold off their holdings, said Luke Muzzy, the Greenville-based project manager for Plum Creek in Maine.

Five years ago, as the company moved ahead with its first residential development on First Roach Pond, east of Moosehead Lake, it faced heavy questioning about its plans for the rest of its land, more than 920,000 acres dotted with 76 lakes and ponds.

In response, Plum Creek began work on a big-picture plan for development in the region. The first version of the plan, presented to the public in 2004, offered to conserve 10,000 acres. Reaction was swift and critical, and extensive revisions followed.

Under the plan now before state officials, the company would donate 91,000 acres to be preserved, including 160 miles of shoreline, Muzzy said. In addition, Plum Creek agreed to sell 340,000 acres to conservation groups for $35 million; moved one resort closer to Greenville, at Big Moose Mountain, and scaled back the size of the other, on Lily Bay; and added plans for affordable housing in Jackman, Greenville, and Rockwood. An additional 45,000 acres outside the parcel also will be preserved.

A Greenville native who sold his real estate business two years ago to work for Plum Creek, Muzzy lives in the same white hilltop farmhouse his family has occupied for generations. A huge black woodstove heats the kitchen, where lake and mountain views unfold above the sink, and maps of the Plum Creek plan span the kitchen table.

"We're trying to bring prosperity to the whole region," he said. "If we don't get more people to use our infrastructure, we're going to lose it."

If the company's plan is approved, Muzzy said, gesturing at a map, it will bring the region predictability, instead of blank space - "someone else's land, the size of Rhode Island, where you're always going to wonder what will happen."

The revised plan has won over some environmental groups. Leaders of the Nature Conservancy in Maine and the Forest Society of Maine, which would acquire and preserve some of the company's lands, have called the plan a rare and "extraordinary" opportunity for conservation.

Others remain unconvinced. Maine Audubon and the Natural Resources Council of Maine oppose the plan, saying it does not do enough to protect the region's wildlife and natural habitat.

At Moosehead Lake Marine Museum, where old maps and paintings line the walls, board member and former director Richard "Duke" McKeil said the Plum Creek plan is in keeping with the region's long history of recreational tourism.

"One hundred years ago, if you took a boat to the end of the lake, you would see hotels and boats everywhere," he said. "The idea of preserving something is very romantic, when the reality is, you don't want to destroy a whole people and their prosperity."

Across Main Street, at the worn, shingled diner Auntie M's, the row of men drinking coffee over plastic Santa Claus placemats at the counter shook their heads grimly at the mention of the project.

One big development is sure to bring others, they said.

"I'll never live to see this area destroyed," said one man, who declined to give his name. "But it's a shame for the young people."

Live audio of the public hearings on the Plum Creek plan can be heard at maine.gov/doc/lurc/.

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