The Land Use Regulatory Commission (LURC) bills in the Legislature have generated a lot of discussion over the past few weeks. Bills like LD 1534 look to transfer the land use planning of the Unorganized Territory (UT) back to the people through county government. As result, there has been talk about whether the counties can afford it, whether they are able to handle it or if they even want it. This discussion has been had by legislators, bureaucrats, special interests and the media.
The funny thing about all these discussions is that some of the people having them evidently aren’t interested in actually hearing from the counties. Perhaps this is because the counties’ beliefs don’t fit the predetermined narrative of LURC’s importance.
Be assured, the counties are very capable of taking on land planning. In spite of some reports that say the counties are divided, the Maine County Commissioner Association voted overwhelmingly as Democrats, Republicans and independents alike to support this move. There were only two dissenting county votes, one of which was found to be contradictory to that county’s majority opinion while the other was Piscataquis County.
Honestly no one can blame them for being weary. After all, they witnessed firsthand the complete debacle of the Plum Creek situation that left both sides upset, LURC’s ruling was overturned and ultimately development stalled yet again in the UT.
The counties not only understand the fiscal implications, they see them as a potential cost savings to the people of Maine. The transfer of LURC would bring to an end the almost $1 million LURC subsidy in the general fund, therefore reducing the tax burden for everyone statewide. The people of Maine need no longer subsidize the cost of land planning in the UT as its costs would be covered directly by UT taxes paid for by UT landowners and residents.
So far as the expertise, land planning goes on every day in our largest cities and our smallest towns. Often it is done by volunteer citizen boards, so the implication that only paid LURC staff can handle land planning is quite disingenuous. Counties already serve as the municipal agents for the UT in all aspects of their operations. Existing staff may need to be added on a limited basis to cover the supplemental land use activities.
LD 1534 transfers all the current LURC rules to the counties. All that changes is who is in charge of those rules. It seems apparent that what really is at issue is the fact that the people will be in charge, not the bureaucracy.
It appears obvious that some surrounding this issue feel as though the counties are incapable and can’t be trusted in making such a difficult determination. At the recent LURC hearing, Rep. John Martin of Eagle Lake stated (as quoted in the May 18 Bangor Daily News), “I don’t want to see the power go to the counties. There are some counties I wouldn’t want to give more power for anything.” Many see Rep. Martin’s statement as quite telling.
It may come as a surprise to some, but many county officials are former state senators and-or representatives and-or municipal officers. So the idea that county commissioners are any less qualified than members of our Legislature, cities or towns seems a bit suspect.
These are the same counties that the state had to seek out to bail themselves out of the state’s prison problem. The recent formation of the Board of Corrections, hailed by the state as a success, is coming on the backs of the counties’ management practices, not the state’s.
Augusta hates giving up power, and thank you, Rep. Martin, for making that abundantly clear. School consolidation took on towns, the Board of Corrections took on counties and the LURC issue is no different. The growing central planning bureaucracy in Augusta for the past 40 years has long believed that the people of Maine can’t be trusted to make their own decisions; they must be made for them. That is what this LURC issue is really all about. Don’t take my word for it, take Rep. Martin’s.
Christopher M. Gardner is chairman of the Washington County Commissioners.