GUEST COLUMN

Keep the Dark Patch Dark – Don’t ‘Reform’ LURC

Posted May 12, 2011, at 10:04 p.m.

“There stands the city of Bangor, fifty miles up the Penobscot … like a star at the edge of night, still hewing at the forests of which is it built …”

Henry David Thoreau, 1846

The Maine Woods are much different now. But they still display a great patch of darkness on the iconic nighttime satellite photos. This remote, largely undeveloped region has been privately owned for 1½ centuries. But the pressures for change are growing stronger. Resisting those pressures, with its finger in the dike, has been the Land Use Regulation Commission.

For the umpteenth time, bills are before the Legislature to “reform” LURC and loosen the rules on land use changes in the 10 million-acre Unorganized Territory and hand those tasks to the eight counties.

We read of a need for ”development.” This curiously loaded term seeks to manipulate the reader into thinking of “development” as a positive thing. What is really meant by “development” most of the time?

Small communities, far from being able to handle land use themselves, are becoming roadside slums of tacky, sprawled development stuck right on the road, needlessly vandalizing the very values that once brought people there. To call this activity “development” is to twist the language beyond recognition.

Do we need such “development” to house people? No. In most parts of the jurisdiction, far more lots and homes were created than were needed for population growth.

What this kind of land use does, though, is to privatize the wildlands by eliminating access to water frontage and by annexing scenic views to the landowners who look out over pristine vistas, while those beyond look back up at a hillside full of houses. This is “development” for the few and desecration for the many.

People live in and near the wildlands, and need jobs. Will this “development” benefit the economy? During the bad old days of the 40-acre exemption in LURC territory, hundreds of lots were created, sprinkled here and there. Did these result in improved employment and economic conditions for nearby communities — look for yourself and you’ll see the answer.

Are these communities struggling because of land use controls? Hardly.

The Maine woods are not our forests; they are private property but for the occasional nonprofits, state lands and the easements. The wildlife and the waters are not private property. But the lands are private; their owners have rights.

I am not a supporter of the proposed national park, nor do I support extinguishing development rights by legislative action. I believe there has to be a middle ground. This means that all of us have to see a few more lots, leisure homes, resorts and perhaps wind turbine towers than we’d like. A few people will be constrained.

We should not forget that rules can create shared gains. Our lakeside  house was built after the 75-foot setbacks for shoreline zoning. We wish the other ones had followed that rule.

LURC is an imperfect instrument, no doubt. Partly due to human and political frailty, partly due to its challenging mandate — protect the values of the wildlands while respecting property rights. Is the answer to hand its duties to eight counties? Hardly. The entire LURC jurisdiction, if it were a county, would be the smallest one we have; its population is about the size of York, a bit smaller than Waterville.

The counties have little experience in land use matters. Giving them this job is about like going on a hunting trip in northern Maine and hiring a guide who has never been here.

Most agree on the need for improved predictability, clarity and stability of regulations. Tossing out 30 years of work by LURC to start over with eight counties does not seem a good way to achieve that.

I ask all of you who care about the Maine woods to call, email or write your legislator and tell them that they should send LDs 17, 1258 and 1534 to the recycling bin. Ask them instead to give serious attention to LD 819 — a bill with a few workable ideas to improve the system.

Lloyd C. Irland is a forest resource and industry consultant in Wayne. He served in the Maine Department of Conservation and as state economist. He is author of “The Northeast’s Changing Forests.”

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