Little Suburb in the Big Woods
It used to be so simple. Thirty-six years ago the legislature created the Land Use Regulation Commission (LURC) to serve as the planning board for Maine's Unorganized Territory. The agency handled permits for twenty-by-twenty hunting camps with an outhouse, new gravel roads for timberland owners, and the occasional year-round home on a lake. Sure, there was the occasional high-profile controversy, such as the Big A Dam on the West Branch of the Penobscot, but relatively speaking life at LURC was quiet.
Those were the good old days. LURC director Catherine Carroll ticks off her current to-do list one by one: a sub-division near Moxie Pond, the Saddleback ski area expansion, a resort proposal near Millinocket, a wind power project in the Boundary Mountains, another wind power project in Redington township - she's run out of fingers on one hand and started on the other - the massive Plum Creek development around Moosehead Lake, a hut and trail system in the western Maine mountains, a third wind power plan for Stetson Mountain. . . .
Maine's North Woods, the 10.5 million acres of industrial forest, conservation land, and three thousand lakes and ponds under LURC's jurisdiction, currently are the target for well over half a billion dollars in new development. Try that number again: half a billion dollars. All of those projects are high on the prio-rity list for what is becoming one of the most active, most controversial, and smallest agencies in state government.
That's in addition to burgeoning residential demand that bears no resemblance to the crude camps of years past. The Little House in the Big Woods has been transformed into a log McMansion. "In my twenty-year tenure here I rarely saw houses in the Unorganized Territory like those being built now," Carroll says. "We're seeing three-thousand-square foot 'camps' with garages and cathedral ceilings and full septic systems and paved driveways." One home project alone, the Greenhill estate north of Greenville, has an estimated cost of $25 million and rising, including a gigantic mansion and a two-thousand-foot runway. "The image of the Unorganized Territory has changed dramatically in recent years, and we're going to see more change in the near future," Carroll predicts.
But that comes with little change for LURC itself. In fact, the agency lost five positions in 2005 to budget cuts and has a current annual budget of $1,936,000. "We have twenty-four people and me," Carroll says. "In 1991 we had thirty-two." And while the raw number of permit applications has remained fairly steady at about 1,200 a year, "what's different is that the 1,200 now include Plum Creek, wind power projects, multiple large subdivision applications," Carroll explains. "We're seeing projects of a size, complexity, and level of public interest that we've rarely seen before."
Simply scheduling public hearings on various applications has become a challenge. Carroll reels off a litany of public hearings that will take her and the seven-member commission through the end of November, and that's without any hearings on her much desired and badly needed new comprehensive plan for the North Woods.
Carroll insists the agency is not overtaxed by the new demands. Yet work on the revised comprehensive plan is behind schedule, and she shows obvious relief in talking about legislation passed last year that allows LURC to hire outside consultants to process major applications such as Plum Creek. "I'm not in panic mode yet," she declares. "But we do see the great interest out there in developing the North Woods."
"We've cut budgets every year I've been here," says Department of Conservation Commissioner Patrick McGowan. "Our employee of the year was [LURC planner] Marcia Spencer-Famous, and she is doing all the wind power projects by herself. I would like to know how many people the city of Portland is using to review its Maine Pier development proposals. I'll bet it's more than one."
There's been a seismic change in what's going on in the North Woods in the past decade," explains Cathy Johnson, of the Natural Resources Council of Maine. "The paper companies have been replaced with a new class of owners with different plans for that region."
Twenty years ago, the number of large landowners in the Unorganized Territory could be counted on one hand. In June 1998 everything changed. That was the month Sappi Fine Paper put almost a million acres of woodland for sale on the open market to the highest bidder. Wall Street analysts and market forces had combined to persuade the paper companies to sell off their timberlands. In the years since, a full two-thirds of the North Woods has changed hands in increasingly smaller parcels to investors and developers whose vision of management and return on investment is measured in years and months rather than the decades and centuries of the paper companies.
"Plum Creek bought its land in 1998 for two hundred dollars an acre - pulpwood price," explains Matthew Polstein, the Millinocket outdoors outfitter and entrepreneur who plans to build a $65-million resort on 1,200 acres of land on Millinocket Lake. Speaking at a well-attended forum on the future of the North Woods at the Strand Theater in Rockland in May, he adds, "You can manage that land for its timber value and make a decent return on it. But timberland purchases lately have been running at $400, $500, $1,000, even as high as $2,100 an acre. That land will never again be managed for its timber value. You can't get a return on that investment from pulpwood. Now you're talking development."
"What has changed? Land ownership patterns," adds McGowan. "In the 1980s, when we were passing all these environmental bills in the legislature, we had long-term ownership, and it was being managed sustainably. Now we're seeing real estate investment trusts, pension funds, and other investors."
A study done for LURC by Planning Decisions, Inc., of South Portland, discovered that the number of net land accounts - new landowners - in the Unorganized Territory increased by 3,175, or 31 percent, between 1985 and 2005. The majority of the growth has been in individuals building new homes and leaseholders who have been forced to buy their camp lots as larger landowners sell off parcels for development. Population has also grown, with an estimated 12,419 people living year-round in the Unorganized Territory in 2005 up from 11,549 in 1990.
In addition, LURC is seeing new uses for the Unorganized Territory, developments and proposals that weren't even envisioned when the last comprehensive plan was adopted in 1997, much less when the last major environmental legislation was passed: wind turbine installations, biomass energy projects, cellphone towers, mega-resorts, and condominium developments. "It's a huge red flag that a lot of people don't understand," says Johnson. "The way we operated in the past, the tools we used - rules, regulations, easements, acquisitions - will not protect the essential character and beauty of the North Woods they way they once did."
"When I was putting together the application for my resort project, I had to comb through LURC's comprehensive plan to find sections that were somehow applicable," Polstein notes. "Projects like mine just weren't on the table in those days. There needs to be a paradigm adaptation. LURC is guided by a plan that is ten years old and doesn't always contemplate changes that happen on a much shorter cycle. The old plan deals extensively with whitewater rafting, for example, because that was the epitome of wilderness usage at the time, but there's nothing about wind power or resort development."
It was only seven years ago that LURC persuaded the legislature to do away with the forty-acre rule, which allowed landowners to subdivide their property without LURC review if the lots were forty acres or larger. One reason for the change was a subdivision of forty-acre lots in northern Somerset County created in an area that had no services, not even roads, yet still attracted not only buyers but more than 120 applications for building permits.
The need for a new plan to guide LURC's work is frustratingly apparent to Carroll. She has had her staff working on updating and rewriting the 1997 plan for three years, "but every time a big new application comes in, it takes time away from planners dealing with the big picture."
The new comprehensive plan "will encourage development while preserving and conserving natural resource values," Carroll explains. "That's the bottom line. We're not here to promote growth and development. We're here to facilitate development in areas where it's already occurring to discourage sprawl."
A continuing emphasis is the desire to concentrate new development close to existing service centers such as Rangeley, Greenville, Brownville, and Millinocket. But the Planning Decisions report found a surprising amount of development in the depths of the Unorganized Territory, far beyond the towns around its edge. "Development isn't happening just on the fringes," notes Johnson. "It's really wilderness sprawl, one house at a time."
Carroll wants to use the agency's zoning power to guide new development through a process called prospective zoning. The 1997 comprehensive plan called for prospective zoning plans for the Rangeley, Moosehead, Carrabassett Valley, and Millinocket regions. Only Rangeley's plan was ever drawn up and implemented, and "it worked great," Carroll says. "It's been in place since 2001. It tells developers and landowners where to site their projects and where they can't."
But such large-scale planning takes time and talent, commodities that are going to more immediate priorities in the day-to-day rush to review applications and deal with the crisis of the moment.
"We're a small agency with a shoestring budget," Carroll notes, "but we're capable of doing our jobs in terms of the law and regulations. . . . If the trends continue into next year, if I'm handed another wind power project or another concept plan, I'll feel the strain. We won't be able to get the work done in a timely manner."
"Maine's North Woods are the largest undeveloped area east of the Mississippi," explains Johnson. "It's really, really special, not just to Maine but for the entire country, and wilderness sprawl is the single biggest threat. It doesn't take much to spoil a wilderness. We need to make sure new development takes place near existing infrastructure, not out in remote areas, or we'll lose what everyone wants to save."
Johnson fears that the "tools we're using now are not going to get us where we want to go. I'm afraid we're going to wake up in ten years and discover we've lost what is most important about the Maine North Woods."
"It's a fine balance," McGowan muses. "We have a vast timberland that's un-developed. You look at the satellite photos of the eastern United States at night and there's that black hole that's the North Woods. How much of that do we want to give up, and how do we protect it?"