In recent weeks, questions have risen regarding the future of the Land Use Regulation Commission, many premised on incorrect assumptions. We want to take some of the apparent mystery out of what LURC is and what it does and to explain why the agency is well-suited to continue to serve the people of the Unorganized Territory and the state of Maine in achieving future economic prosperity.
Created in 1971, LURC was designed to fill a vacuum by being the planning board, code enforcement and permitting staff for the plantations, townships and other unorganized areas of Maine which account for approximately 10.4 million acres. Similar to a local planning board and code enforcement office, LURC is responsible for administering the laws and regulations adopted by the legislative body — in LURC’s case, the Maine Legislature. Similar to most towns, LURC handles both planning and permitting functions through its enabling statute and comprehensive plan to provide the long-term vision for the UT.
Because the area that LURC oversees is so vast, there are five regional offices staffed by permitting and compliance professionals who address the needs of their district. These offices, located in Ashland, West Farmington, Greenville, East Millinocket and Bangor, process and approve the nearly 1,000 applications that come in each year. Ninety percent of LURC applications are processed and approved by regional offices.
Regional staffs live in or near their region, making them familiar with their constituents and communities. Regional office staff also have access to the professional staff in Augusta, including water quality, forestry, recreation, soils, wildlife, economic development, and legal specialists — all designed to meet the region’s needs. County governments currently do not have the expertise or capacity to perform these diverse planning and compliance tasks, and to acquire and maintain them would be costly and inefficient.
The seven LURC commissioners are nominated by the governor and approved by the Legislature. Commissioners, who serve four-year terms, live and work in or near the jurisdiction and bring their knowledge and experience to the citizen board. They are working Maine people in many different arenas: small-business owners, registered Maine Guides, land trust members, farm and forestland owners, town managers, selectmen, educators, members of development commissions, members of lake associations and members of local chambers of commerce.
The transparency provided through the commission’s public processes is a key strength of LURC. Commissioners convene public meetings each month to act on major development proposals, make policy decisions and other agency decisions. Public hearings take place near project locations or in locations where there is public interest in the project. All materials, unless confidentially protected, are available to the public on the LURC website (www.maine.gov/doc/lurc) or upon request.
Much has changed in the 40 years since LURC was created. Today, large homes and mansions, resorts, wind farms and other uses compete with traditional forestry, sporting camps, private seasonal camps, and residential development in remote areas. In the last four years, the commission has approved nearly $1 billion of commercial and residential development. This includes three wind energy projects, the Plum Creek-Moosehead Lake Concept Plan, the “Huts and Trails” project, the Saddleback expansions, Hammond Ridge Resort (near Millinocket), Poland Spring facilities, Cherryfield Foods irrigation, a commercial composting facility and waterfront residential subdivisions. LURC has worked hard to accommodate these more intensive uses while honoring its statutory directive to protect the important and unique values of the North Maine Woods.
Experts tell us that future economic prosperity hinges on taking advantage of Maine’s strengths and distinctive character. The North Maine Woods is one of Maine’s defining resources, and it is the largest contiguous forest east of the Mississippi. It is the backbone of the state’s two largest economic sectors: the forest products industry and the tourism industry. These assets cannot be found elsewhere in the Northeast or beyond.
Maine can grow its economy dramatically by emphasizing and promoting what makes it special. Building upon its established expertise, LURC continues to seek ways to increase efficiency and clarify its regulations to attract appropriate development and preserve the precious natural resources that make Maine special. LURC is committed to working with businesses, organizations, and the public to find new models of success to assure short- and long-term economic prosperity.
Gwen Hilton and Steve Schaefer serve as chairwoman and vice chairman of LURC. Hilton has a family farm and forestland operation in Starks and has provided professional planning services to communities near the UT, including Lincoln and Greenville. Schaefer, a resident of Grand Lake Stream, is a small-business owner in Calais and a professional Maine Guide. Both have other experience relevant to their service on the citizen commission.