LURC’s future uncertain as bills move forward in the Legislature

Posted May 13, 2011, at 6:22 p.m.
Last modified May 16, 2011, at 12:13 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The future of the state’s Land Use Regulation Commission hangs in the balance as the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee prepares for the introduction of three bills that would eliminate or drastically alter the 40-year-old agency.

This won’t be the first time LURC has been challenged in its history, though this time the three Republican-sponsored bills have the backing of the state’s chief executive, Gov. Paul LePage. The elimination of LURC was a consistent talking point during LePage’s campaign.

LURC, which is responsible for land development in the state’s 10 million acres of Unorganized Territory, has been painted by LePage and others as an impediment to development, though the agency’s supporters contend that it plays a critical role in protecting Maine’s natural resources and north woods environment.

“The bottom line is that the state’s natural resources are inextricably linked to the economy of all of Maine and must be protected for all of Maine,” said Beth Della Valle, president of the Maine Association of Planners. “We are in opposition to the bills that would dismantle the Land Use Regulatory Commission.”

Rep. Paul Davis, R-Sangerville, who sponsored one of the LURC bills, said he believes the role of stewarding development in the Unorganized Territory is better left to county governments.

“It certainly isn’t anyone’s desire to turn our part of the state into wall-to-wall asphalt,” said Davis. “We don’t want overdevelopment, but I also don’t want to see the population continue to drop and the young people continue to leave. The big thing we need to do is use the natural resources we have to create manufacturing jobs, and since 1971, when LURC went into effect, we have not had a major infrastructure investment in this part of the state. Because of all the complications and rules that are laid down by LURC, people just go somewhere else.”

Davis’ bill, “An Act to Reform the Land Use and Planning Authority Within the Unorganized Territories of the State,” would eliminate LURC as of July 15, 2012, but not before it develops a plan to transfer land use planning responsibilities to the counties.

A second bill, “An Act to Improve Land Use Planning and Permitting in Unorganized Territories,” is sponsored by Sen. Roger Sherman, R-Houlton. Sherman’s bill, which so far exists only as a concept draft, would make economic development LURC’s primary mission and transfer oversight of the agency to the Department of Economic and Community Development. Other functions that traditionally have been handled by LURC, such as forestry regulation, would be transferred to other agencies. Sherman’s bill also would create three regional planning and permitting commissions that would be responsible for specific areas of Maine.

A third bill, “An Act to Reform the Land Use and Planning Authority in the Unorganized Territories,” is sponsored by Rep. Jeffery Gifford, R-Lincoln. Like Davis’ bill, it would eliminate LURC in July 2012 and create the Land Use Planning in the Unorganized Territory Transition advisory board, which would usher the transition of LURC’s functions to county governments.

A coalition of opponents to the bills, which includes landowners, foresters and planners, is scheduled to gather Monday at the State House to assail the bills, claiming that the abolishment of LURC would “destroy Maine’s North Woods and roll back 40 years of protections,” according to a press release circulated this week.

“LURC has served as an important guardian of Maine’s unorganized territories and helped guide development to appropriate locations, protect ecologically important areas, support Maine’s forest industry and safeguard remote recreational opportunities on Maine’s many prized lakes, rivers, mountains and forests,” states the release.

Della Valle, who is one of the people who will participate in Monday’s press conference, said Friday that she sees room for improvement within LURC’s process, but that abolishing the agency would create a near-impossible situation for county governments.

“The counties don’t have the history, don’t have the staff and don’t have the funds to do the regulation that’s being talked about,” she said. “Never before has the state shifted planning and regulatory authority to a different level of government without including a significant level of funds.”

Davis said that various forms of funding are being considered, including dedicating fees paid to registries of deeds when a land parcel is purchased — money that now goes mostly to the Maine Housing Authority — for county land-use functions.

Bob Howe, executive director of the Maine County Commissioners Association, agreed with Della Valle that the money needs to follow the responsibility.

“The point is that if the counties are going to accept this responsibility, the expense can’t fall on property tax payers,” said Howe.

The Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee is scheduled to hear the bills beginning at 1 p.m. Tuesday.

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