June 18, 2018
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Improve LURC, Don’t Kill It

The Land Use Regulation Commission, often called the planning board for the state’s 10 million acres of the Unorganized Territory, has been the target of efforts to abolish the agency almost since its founding in 1971. Rather than eliminating the commission, it needs to be professionalized.

On Tuesday, lawmakers will consider three bills to eliminate or alter the commission. All should be rejected. That, however, doesn’t mean LURC couldn’t use some updating.

The problem, says Rep. Paul Davis, a Republican from Sangerville, is that there isn’t enough development in the Unorganized Territory. “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,” he said last week.

Blaming LURC is a non sequitur. There hasn’t been much development in the largely forested areas of northern Maine (LURC jurisdiction also includes many off-shore islands) because there are too few people there. No entity that needs a lot of workers is going to locate in an area where people are sparse.

Rep. Davis is the sponsor of LD 17, which would eliminate LURC and give its job to the commissioners of the various counties that contain the Unorganized Territory. LD 1534 also would transfer LURC’s work to the counties. Since the counties don’t want — and, more important, are not equipped to handle — the planning and permitting work done by LURC, the debate on these bill should be short.

Another bill to be considered by the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee on Tuesday, LD 1258, would transfer LURC’s responsibilities to the Department of Economic and Community Development. Although Gov. Paul LePage and others have pushed for more development of the state’s Unorganized Territory, eliminating LURC won’t accomplish this. Further, DECD has more than enough work trying to encourage companies to grow and expand in the more developed parts of Maine. Adding wildlife and resource protection and overseeing forest easements to their mission would detract from other economic development work.

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 Board of Environmental Protection 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 appeals 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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