Development and conservation easements

After a seven year struggle, the Supreme Judicial Court of Maine has paved the way for Plum Creek which calls itself the largest and most geographically diverse private landowner in the nation to proceed with a rezoning of 400,000 acres of Northern Forest land. Ultimately 16,000 of those acres will be developed for 975 residential lots and two large resorts.

A variety of environmental groups found themselves on both sides of this battle depending on whether or not they were purchasing conservation easements from Plum Creek. The Nature Conservancy and The Appalachian Mountain Club purchased conservation easements over 307,500 acres in order to complete a 2 million acre “preserved” corridor that is the size of Yellowstone National Park.

Despite this, other environmental groups including the National Resources Council of Maine, RESTORE: The North Woods, and the Forest Ecology Network waged a lengthy and costly campaign against the project.

One wonders if conservation easements have eroded the public’s right to strictly regulate development on wild lands. Is it realistic to think that Plum Creek or any other landowner would be able to develop large portions of this land? Could a similar outcome have been achieved with an exclusively regulatory approach? By being willing to pay private landowners to preserve their land, are environmental groups establishing an expectation that similarly situated landowners are entitled to be paid if the public wishes to limit or even prohibit development of wild lands?

Note: You can access a full copy of the Court’s opinion at Leagle.com.

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