April 27, 2018
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Effort to ban LURC gets cool reception

By Diana Bowley, BDN Staff

DOVER-FOXCROFT, Maine — A campaign called “Take America Back and Take Maine Back” that seeks to abolish the Land Use Regulation Commission failed to garner much support Tuesday from Piscataquis County commissioners.

Philip Merletti, campaign spokesman, told commissioners that his group was trying to return the sovereignty taken from Maine residents when LURC was established by legislation in 1971.

“What we’re trying to do is elicit your support to repeal the 1971 Land Use Regulatory Commission Act,” Merletti said. That way people in the Unorganized Territory can vote for the people who make the decisions for them, he said.

Merletti’s presentation to commissioners was interspersed with a campaign stump for Paul LePage for governor and Merletti’s belief that President Barack Obama was continuing an effort to convert northern Maine into a national park.

After listening to Merletti’s lengthy presentation, Piscataquis County Commissioner Tom Lizotte said, “I personally don’t see a great merit in your proposal, and I disagree with your politics. You do not have my support for this.”

Lizotte and Commissioners Eric Ward and Fred Trask were told that an effort to repeal LURC failed by one vote last year. LD 1370, An Act to Reform the Land Use and Planning Authority within the Unorganized Territories of the state, sponsored last year by Henry Joy, R-Crystal, was killed in committee by one vote. A key supporter of resubmitting that bill is Washington County Commissioner Chris Gardner, Merletti said.

Contacted Wednesday, Gardner confirmed he supported the repeal effort. The Washington County Board of Commissioners is in unanimous support of the idea, he said. Gardner said county commissioners serve as the selectmen for the Unorganized Territory in everything but planning and tax collection.

“It would seem, especially when the state budget cuts are so drastic and we are in such a hole, that the state would take this opportunity to find a way to streamline government,” Gardner said. If planning and tax collection were turned over to the counties, it would allow for better planning, he said.

Gardner said Gov. John Baldacci has said that regionalization is the key to Maine’s future, and repealing LURC would allow that planning to take place at a regional level by people who are elected from the public or who are accountable to the public.

“If you did away with LURC, you could save almost up to $2 million out of the general fund,” Gardner said. “All you’re doing is you’re cutting out a bureaucracy; you’re not shutting down nursing homes, or cutting school funding. It would seem as though if the state was interested in really saving money, this is an opportunity to do so and nobody hurts.”

Merletti said support from commissioners across the state is being sought to help push the repeal effort. He said LURC has added more regulations to the Unorganized Territory, and in doing so, has removed more uses of that land and made it more primitive.

Joining Merletti at the meeting was Robert Ek of Lee, who said there is no other state that has anything like LURC, which governs 52 percent of the state’s land.

Ek spoke of a retired couple who wanted to operate a take-out business three months a year in Prentiss but were denied by LURC because their proposal was not for a commercial zone. He said the couple asked where the commercial zones were in the community and were told there was none.

In showing that LURC is regulating more for primitive use, Ek said the state had 6.25 million acres of pasture and cultivated ground in 1940, and today has just more than 1 million acres. “In my lifetime, Maine has gained an average of 77,000 acres a year of forest — gained — that’s three townships,” he said.

If LURC were abolished, Piscataquis County Commissioner Lizotte asked, who would act on the land use issues and how would applications be processed since LURC has professional staff to do that?

Ek suggested the county could designate a nearby planning board to handle the issues and applications. Should professional work be needed, the planning board could hire help, but the applicant would pay for it, he said.

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