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New test for developers in Maine: climate change

Huge development around Moosehead Lake would create 500,000 tons of CO2 over 50 years, environmentalists say.

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But laws that allow direct action are still limited. Only California, Massachusetts, and King County, Wash., have specifically incorporated climate-change analysis into the state environmental-review process as it applies to land development, experts say.

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"It's mostly talk in the other states," Dr. Ewing says. "But that's only because at this point nobody is exactly sure how to get there. A lot of people are talking about it and many are following California's lead."

California's attorney general has also been a driving force in challenging development because of its climate effects. Last April, he sued San Bernardino County, claiming its development plan didn't go far enough in evaluating greenhouse-gas emissions as required by the California Environmental Quality Act. The attorney general also sued ConocoPhillips over a refinery expansion plan in Contra Costa County. Both cases saw settlements last year that require action to take greenhouse-gas emissions into account.

Liability-conscious California cities and towns are now rushing to include basic greenhouse-gas assessments in their development plans, experts say. At least 148 land-development filings under the environmental quality act last year cited greenhouse-gas emissions as a key issue – compared with just two known cases a year earlier.

"We've seen a substantial increase over years past," says Scott Morgan, senior planner with the California Governor's Office of Planning and Research. "Climate change has kind of permeated everything with regard to land use."

A major challenge for California cities, counties, and developers is the lack of specific threshold standards for greenhouse-gas emissions, he adds. But his office expects to develop such standards by 2010.

Environmental groups, meanwhile, are stepping up their legal challenges to new land developments.

In 2006, the Center for Biological Diversity, which specializes in legal action to protect endangered species, sued Banning, Calif., a city of about 30,000, for its alleged failure to evaluate the impact on climate of a proposed development of about 1,500 homes.

"We wanted them to take their carbon footprint into account and really look at the greenhouse-gas issue," says Matt Vespa, an attorney with the center. "They just ignored us."

Officials for the city say they hope the case, which is awaiting a judge's verdict, will validate the city's earlier environmental impact assessment of the development.

"Banning is very concerned about being a green city and being protective of the environment," says Julie Hayward Biggs, Banning's city attorney. "There was no requirement to take greenhouse emissions into account at the time the city approved the development – and there still are no standards."

Plum Creek decision this summer?

Meanwhile, the last hearings on Maine's Plum Creek project are scheduled for this week.

State officials are expected to rule as soon as this summer on the company's request to rezone hundreds of thousands of acres for development.

"Climate change will be the defining issue for urban planning and land development in the years ahead," says Ewing. "It will trump everything."