LURC debates land use update

Posted Sept. 10, 2008, at 9:06 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 7:17 a.m.

BANGOR, Maine – Members of Maine’s Land Use Regulation Commission spent most of Wednesday bogged down in semantics as they struggled to update a planning document that affects policy decisions on more than 10 million acres.

LURC is in the process of re-writing its Comprehensive Land Use Plan for the Unorganized Territory for the first time since 1997.

But like many other issues before LURC recently, the comprehensive plan update has become part of a larger culture clash over how best to balance economic development, recreation and land preservation in Maine’s North Woods.

On Wednesday, the seven-member board spent hours trying to address concerns that the draft plan favors conservationists’ views of how LURC should handle planning and zoning in the 10.4-million acre Unorganized Territory.

Those concerns were raised by some residents and large landowners in the Unorganized Territory, many of whom spoke at a series of emotion-filled public workshops held last spring. The majority of written comments supported aspects of the draft plan, according to LURC staff.

Commission Chairman Bart Harvey reiterated Wednesday that the current draft is only that — a draft. LURC staff will redo the plan based on both commissioners’ and submitted comments, and then that re-written version will be subject to another round of public scrutiny.

“This process as far as I’m concerned is far from over,” Harvey said, addressing the interested parties in the audience. “And I think all of you realize that we have to go through a formal public hearing on whatever document is produced.”

Some of the criticism of the draft has concentrated on the interpretations of such words as “values,” “primitive” and “dispersed.” Others have suggested the draft downplays the importance of the commercial forestry industry to the local economy.

Critics have accused the LURC staff of appearing to favor “primitive” back-country recreation — such as hiking, cross-country skiing or wildlife watching — over the snowmobiles and ATVs that are also key to the local economy.

The commissioners and LURC staff said Wednesday that it was never their intention to designate one form of recreation as more important than another. A revised draft will clarify that all types of recreation are important and that use of most land in the territory hinges on landowners’ willingness to continue Maine’s tradition of public access.

“I don’t think it needs to be a battle … if we can understand who owns the land and we can understand the public’s desire for quiet places,” said co-chairman Stephen Wight. “Ten-and-a-half million acres is big enough for everybody to do everything, just not at the same time.”

Another hot topic is the threat posed by development.

LURC staff members report that more than 8,000 new dwellings were permitted in the Unorganized Territory between 1971 and 2005. Of those dwellings, roughly 70 percent legally skirted the LURC rezoning or subdivision processes that seek to guide development into appropriate locations.

The draft plan states that unguided, “dispersed” development away from existing communities or infrastructure threatens the natural character of the territory.

Some observers objected to the use of the word “dispersed,” saying that 8,000 additional dwellings is a small number considering the size of the jurisdiction. Others agreed with the word, however, as well as staff warnings that development threatens the territory.

“Everyone has a different idea of what dispersed devel-opment looks like and what threat that poses to the jurisdiction, and I think we need to recognize that” in the final plan, said Sarah Giffen, a land use planner with LURC. But the updated plan must also point out that LURC currently lacks the regulatory tools to fully control sprawl, Giffen said.

Supporters of the current draft, as well as LURC staff members, have accused several organizations, including the Maine Forest Products Council, of disseminating misinformation that prompted false concerns.

Patrick Strauch, executive director of the Maine Forest Products Council, which represents most of the state’s major timberland owners, said his organization stands by all of the information it has disseminated.

The reality is that the meanings of individual words such as “primitive” are important to large landowners in today’s regulatory environment because they can influence policy decisions, he said.

Strauch said he appreciated Wednesday’s debate and that the commissioners are trying to address the balance concerns raised by landowners. One of the major concerns landowners have is a gradual shift in perception that much of the territory is publicly owned land because the public has access to it.

The Comprehensive Land Use Plan “goes too far down that road of assuming that this is public [land] that should be managed by the public, and it’s not,” Strauch said. “It’s a private resource.”

In an interesting twist, legal counsel have advised the commissioners to avoid talking about Plum Creek’s development proposal for the Moosehead Lake region during discussion of the comprehensive plan update. That is why commissioners did not attend last spring’s public workshops on the plan.

Cathy Johnson, North Woods project director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said Plum Creek “changed the game” by proposing the largest development in state history in LURC’s territory. Yet the commission is prohibited from discussing this major development for fear of tainting the review of Plum Creek’s application, she said.

“It is the poster child for why this plan needs to address the problem of sprawling development in the North Woods,” Johnson said.

The commission will discuss additional revisions to the draft plan during its next meeting on Oct. 1.

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