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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.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 16, 2008

Moosehead lake: Plum Creek Timber Co. is proposing to clear 14,000 acres of forest to build some 2,300 apartment units and homes around this Maine lake. The final hearings are scheduled for this week.

Melanie Stetson Freeman - staff

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A plan to build thousands of new homes next to a lake in Maine's north woods faces an environmental test that may one day challenge developers nationwide: What's the carbon footprint of a new subdivision or land development?

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At hearings last month, Maine environmentalists unveiled for state regulators what is being called a first-in-the-nation study of the greenhouse-gas emissions expected from a huge development planned for Maine's Moosehead Lake. Some observers call it a new front in an emerging battle between environmentalists and developers that started in California two years ago.

"What we're asking in the [Maine] case, for the first time, is to consider the net carbon impacts of a major proposed development," says Michael Stoddard, deputy director of Environment Northeast, the Boston environmental research group that did the study.

So how much carbon does a development emit? Environment Northeast estimates that the plan to clear 14,000 acres of forest to build about 2,300 apartment units and homes could generate up to 500,000 metric tons of carbon-dioxide emissions over 50 years, if emissions of vehicles traveling to the distant site are included. The US emits some 12,000 times that amount in a single year.

The developer, Plum Creek Timber Co., disputes the analysis.

"Our plan in Maine is very sensitive to the carbon-footprint issue," says Kathy Budinick, spokeswoman for Seattle-based Plum Creek. "If our plan is approved, more than 400,000 acres of land will be permanently conserved in perpetuity for sustainable forestry, representing the second-largest conservation easement in US history. It's really quite a phenomenal carbon outcome."

At issue is not just the size of a development but the amount of driving it encourages. By being so far from major cities and accessible only by car, the Plum Creek project would produce, conservatively speaking, an additional 9,500 tons of emissions annually, according to the Environment Northeast study. That's the equivalent of putting an extra 1,850 vehicles on the road.

"It's our belief that we can't meet the nation's transportation goals for climate change just by improving automobile technology," says Alan Caron, president of GrowSmart Maine, an antisprawl group that lobbies for compact urban planning and public transportation systems and helped sponsor the Plum Creek study. "You have to pay attention to where things are located."

States eye impact of developments

Other states are beginning to scrutinize the climate impact of real estate developments.

At least 35 states have climate-action plans or are in the process of developing them, says Reid Ewing, executive director of the National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education at the University of Maryland. Of those, 17 states have set emissions targets for greenhouse gases.

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