The five-year struggle to approve Plum Creek’s North Woods property near Moosehead Lake was all about finding the best possible deal.

The landowner offered the state conservation land in exchange for the right to develop in sensitive areas.

The final deal that was approved by the Land Use Regulation Commission in September 2009 hit a balance: In exchange for 400,000 acres of forestland that would be closed to development, Plum Creek would get the right to sell 975 house lots and develop two resorts, including one by the sensitive Lily Bay.

Last week, a judge dealt Plum Creek a setback, but what he didn’t say is just as important as what he did.

Justice Thomas Humphrey did not attack the deal that was struck, but the process by which it was reached. He found that the final proposal was so different from what originally had been presented that it should have been subject to another public hearing.

This has been hailed as a victory by the opponents of the development, but it’s a small one since another round of public hearings may do nothing to convince LURC members that what is now on the table is not still the best deal possible.

Rejecting the rezoning plan would not necessarily protect the environment. It could lead to something much worse.

If the company walked away from its rezoning plan, it would retain development rights for the entire 400,000-plus acres and could develop it piecemeal under current zoning.

With the price of timberland high, all landowners are looking for other ways to make money beside sustainable forestry. Real estate development is part of the equation, and wildlife habitat and public access could be at risk from haphazard development.

Growth patterns are changing. Instead of unobtrusive camps on leased land, people are building large houses in sensitive areas such as ridge tops, accessed by private roads or landing strips. Unchecked, this kind of growth would be more disruptive than what Plum Creek has proposed.

Mainers would be better off with a good deal than with no deal at all. LURC should listen to the public comment about what the judge has determined is a new plan, but it should keep in mind what Maine could lose by making the proposal untenable for the company.

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