June 18, 2018
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Improving LURC

Bills to abolish the Land Use Regulation Commission, often called the planning board for the state’s 10 million acres of Unorganized Territory, have been around since the commission’s founding in 1971. Rather than eliminating the commission, it needs to be professionalized.

The most recent bill comes from Rep. Paul Davis, a Republican from Sangerville, who wants to hand the commission’s responsibilities to county commissioners or another appropriate group.

He cites the example of two ski areas — Sugarloaf, which is in an organized township, where permitting is overseen by the local planning board and the Department of Environmental Protection, and Saddleback, which is in the Unorganized Territory. Both applied for permits for upgrades. Sugarloaf’s approval came in less than a month. Saddleback faced 26 intervenors and spent several hundred thousand dollars before its project was approved by LURC. In fairness, the Saddleback project was much more extensive than the one at Sugarloaf.

The solution isn’t to hand this work to the county commissioners, however. Combining LURC and the Board of Environmental Protection — and appointing professionals to the new board — could be a better solution.

LURC recently spent years considering the largest development plan in state history as Plum Creek Timber Co. in 2005 proposed to rezone 20,000 acres around Moosehead Lake for housing development and two resorts.

Rep. Davis lamented that Plum Creek spent $25 million to get the required permits to move ahead with the project. This money paid for an unprecedented 230 hours of public hearings on the project, hearings in which local residents and those from afar got to praise or critique the proposal. It is unlikely that county commissioners would devote anywhere near this amount of time to hear from the public.

As a result of the hearings and reams of written public comments, Plum Creek revised its plans numerous times. The end result was a better plan, which clustered development in more appropriate areas and added more permanent conservation.

Without LURC and its rules, county commissioners would have no leverage to negotiate a better deal. The end result could have been lots of development without the other benefits that were ultimately part of the Plum Creek plan. Or no development at all.

A better approach was proposed by former Sen. Peter Mills in 2008. The Cornville Republican wrote a bill to raise the stipends for members of LURC and the BEP to professionalize them.

In addition to a growing workload, LURC and BEP are handling increasingly complex issues such as new energy projects and resort development spread over thousands of acres. This is much different from deciding whether a camp is far enough from a lake.

Sen. Mills pointed to a real problem with LURC — it makes the rules and then decides whether people have complied with them. In doing both legislative and judicial functions it serves like a town council, planning board and zoning board of appeals all in one. While this may be efficient, it doesn’t give landowners anywhere other than court to go when they feel a decision was wrong.

One solution could be to combine LURC and the BEP into one entity, with an appeal body.

With unforeseen — both in complexity and scope — new activities in the Unorganized Territory, LURC needs to be strengthened, not eliminated.

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