The timberland company Weyerhaeuser is asking to terminate a massive rezoning plan for the Moosehead Lake region that was the focus of years of debate and regulatory battles over development in Maine’s North Woods.

In a filing this week submitted precisely 10 years after the original rezoning, Weyerhaeuser told the Land Use Planning Commission that the company wants to end the development and subdivision zoning rights for nearly 1,000 house lots and two resorts near Maine’s largest lake. The land was rezoned for development in September 2009 as part of the contentious Moosehead Region Concept Plan granted to Plum Creek Timber Company, which merged with Weyerhaeuser in 2016.

“Unfortunately, the impact of the 2008-2009 recession forever changed the United States development landscape,” Weyerhaeuser senior asset manager Luke Muzzy wrote to the commission. “As a result, and despite our best efforts, the development components under the Concept Plan have not been implemented and no development has occurred.”

Plum Creek’s Moosehead Lake development plan was one of the largest and costliest regulatory reviews in Maine history. After years of fierce debate and hundreds of hours of hearings, the then-named Land Use Regulation Commission agreed to rezone nearly 400,000 acres in the Moosehead Lake region.

The vast majority of that acreage was permanently protected from development – while still allowing sustainable forestry – through easements or sales to conservation groups in what was then the second-largest conservation deal in U.S. history. In return, Plum Creek was granted the right to develop 975 house lots and two large resorts near Moosehead Lake.

All of the conservation land protections as well as associated recreational improvements – such as hiking and snowmobiling trails – will remain in place if the planning commission grants Weyerhaeuser’s rezoning request. That’s because the development restrictions and obligations to provide public recreational access in the conservation easements are permanent and supersede any zoning on the land.

“A message that we really want to emphasize to everybody is the Moosehead Region Conservation Easement is permanent and would remain unchanged in any termination of the zoning or termination of the concept plan,” said Karin Tilberg, executive director of the Forest Society of Maine, which “holds” or manages the easement on the Moosehead Lake lands. “I want to make sure that really comes through loud and clear, that the 363,000-acre conservation easement is permanent and the Forest Society of Maine continues to hold it and will do so.”

But the residential and resort development has never materialized in the decade since the plan was approved. So Weyerhaeuser is asking the commission to rezone 16,910 acres that was within the development zone to a “general management” designation that is common throughout Maine’s commercially managed timberlands.

“Therefore we have concluded that the solutions incorporated in the Concept Plan are no longer practicable to implement,” Muzzy wrote. “We believe returning the zoning back to the original classification, which allows sustainable timber management, would provide near-term predictability for LUPC, Weyerhaeuser and the Moosehead Lake Region.”

The commission will meet in Greenville on Oct. 9 to begin discussing next steps in the process.

The Natural Resources Council of Maine, which fought Plum Creek’s development plan all the way to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, said Friday that the organization was eager to learn more about the request from Weyerhaeuser.

“However, it does not surprise us that Weyerhaeuser does not see a realistic prospect for developing nearly 1,000 housing units and two resorts in the Moosehead Region, as allowed by the plan,” Pete Didisheim, advocacy director for the council, said in a statement. “NRCM has long believed that Plum Creek’s sprawling build-out scenario was out of touch with the realities of the real estate market in that region. This was true well before the 2008 and 2009 recession and is still true today.”

NRCM and other opponents of Plum Creek’s original proposal said the development allowed under the plan would allow sprawl far outside of towns in areas revered for their natural beauty. Didisheim said he hopes terminating the concept plan would allow Greenville and Rockwood to have more say in locating development closer to their communities.

Weyerhaeuser submitted its petition to the Land Use Planning Commission on Sept. 23 – exactly 10 years to the day that the commission gave final approval to Plum Creek’s Moosehead Lake concept plan. Company spokesman Chris Fife called the timing “pure coincidence.”

In response to questions about future development plans, Fife wrote that the company has no plans for development on the rezoned land.

“This zoning will allow us to practice our usual, sustainable forest management on this land,” Fife said.

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