LURC staff urge more talks on Unorganized Territory

Posted Dec. 01, 2008, at 9:36 p.m.

Staff of the Land Use Regulation Commission are recommending that work on the agency’s comprehensive plan be pushed back several months to allow additional discussion about development trends in the 10½-million-acre Unorganized Territory.

LURC staff have proposed holding six to eight meetings with interested parties early next year in order to address what has become a lightning rod in the process to update the commission’s comprehensive land use plan.

Critics of the draft plan have accused the commission of exaggerating the threat posed by unregulated development in the UT and of dramatically re-writing the plan’s vision statement to favor “primitive” recreation. LURC staff and supporters of the draft plan have said some of those concerns have been fueled by misinformation.

In an attempt to quell some of the controversy, commission members instructed staff to propose several options for proceeding with the plan update. The commission will consider those options during a meeting scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Wednesday at the Spectacular Event center in Bangor.

Commission staffers are recommending the formation of a working group to air differing views over the scope of development in the UT. Members of the group would likely be appointed by the governor, and the meetings would be run by an independent facilitator.

“The overall purpose of the working group would be to increase the level of understanding among various interest groups on what is apparently the most controversial concept in the draft plan … giving them an opportunity to speak with the commission directly but also getting them to think collaboratively and collectively about some potential solutions,” the staff recommendation states.

Holding working group meetings would likely delay the plan update by at least two months.

Catherine Carroll, LURC’s director, said the main idea of the working group meetings will be to spark dialogue about development.

“There is not an expectation … that there will be a consensus reached here,” Carroll said. “We’re trying to flesh out what are the issues and are there problems here.”

More than 8,100 new dwellings have been permitted by LURC since 1971. Roughly 70 percent of those dwellings legally bypassed the commission’s rezoning and subdivision processes that are intended to guide development into appropriate locations.

But the commission’s critics point out that 8,100 dwellings over 30-plus years is not a large number on a landscape encompassing more than 10 million acres. They also counter that much of that development has occurred close to roads or existing communities.

Patrick Strauch, executive director of the Maine Forest Products Council, which represents Maine’s large timberland owners, said he believes a facilitated discussion could be positive. But it all depends on how the group is structured and the desired outcomes, he said.

Strauch said there are also concerns that the draft plan’s wording makes the UT sound more like a “public park” than a private, working forest.

“We think the [plan] is a pretty important document,” Strauch said. “But the current draft is so far off the mark.”

Jenn Gray, a staff attorney at Maine Audubon, which has generally supported the direction of the draft plan, said she will be curious to hear what proponents of the working group hope to gain.

“There has already been quite a bit of public comment on opportunity for input, and the schedule offers more opportunities for public input,” Gray said.

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