BANGOR (AP) — A sprawling resort and residential development at the gateway to Maine's North Woods that would be the largest of its kind in the state won a state planning board's unanimous approval Wednesday.
Plum Creek Timber Co.'s proposal was approved nearly five years after the Seattle-based company announced plans to build two resorts and more than 2,000 housing units near Moosehead Lake.
Critics said the development will bring traffic and congestion and threaten the character of the North Woods, a region made famous by writer Henry David Thoreau. Supporters said it will give an economic boost to the region and result in hundreds of thousands of acres of forest lands being preserved.
Even with the state Land Use Regulation Commission's approval, it could be years before construction begins. Plum Creek would need to win permits for construction, and opponents said they intend to file a lawsuit to stop the development.
James Kraft, an attorney for Plum Creek, said the company went through an exhaustive process to win final state approval, making several changes and downsizing the plans over the years.
"It may not be the perfect plan, but everybody up there agreed it was a good plan," Kraft said.
Plum Creek first announced in 2004 that it planned to subdivide its holdings in the Moosehead region and build a development that would include nearly 1,000 house lots, two resorts, three recreational-vehicle parks, a golf course and a marina.
To gain approval, Plum Creek petitioned the land-use commission to rezone nearly 400,000 acres of land. Plum Creek officials say development will be limited to an area spread out over 16,900 acres, with the company donating or selling conservation easements on 363,000 acres where public access would be guaranteed and future residential development prohibited.
The final development now calls for 821 house lots as well as two resorts with more than 1,200 housing units - houses, hotel rooms or condominiums - at Big Moose Mountain and Lilly Bay.
From the start, opponents said the plan was inappropriate for what they say is the largest undeveloped tract east of the Mississippi River. Thoreau wrote about the area 150 years ago after traveling the waterways and forests that shaped many of his ideas about nature.
Opponents also claimed the regulatory process was flawed, with the commission taking on an advocacy role for Plum Creek.
Two Maine-based conservation groups, the Forest Ecology Network and RESTORE: The North Woods, said Wednesday they intend to file a lawsuit in state court seeking to overturn the commission's decision.
Jonathan Carter, executive director of the Forest Ecology Network, said the commission "switched sides" as it considered the Plum Creek application.
"Rather than being an advocate for the unorganized townships, it became the architect and advocate for Plum Creek development," Carter said.
But other conservation groups said the plan creates conservation easements that will prevent future haphazard development over hundreds of thousands of acres. The plan also preserves public access, guarantees selective tree cutting to preserve the area's forest, and provides ecological protections, said Alan Hutchinson, executive director of the Forest Society of Maine, a Bangor-based land trust.
"This concept plan puts all those guarantees in place that you wouldn't have otherwise," Hutchinson said.
Prior to the vote, police arrested several protesters who disrupted the meeting, yelled at board members and accused them of selling out.
The protesters were identified as members of the Native Forest Network, a grass-roots organization that has been vocal in its opposition to the development.