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Lawmakers spar over fate of LURC

Posted May 26, 2011, at 8:41 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Efforts to craft a bipartisan compromise on reforming the Land Use Regulation Commission fell apart Thursday in a tense committee hearing, likely setting the stage for major floor fights in the House and Senate.

At first glance, the Republican and Democratic proposals on the future of LURC appear similar. Both would create a 13-member study commission to recommend ways to improve planning, permitting and oversight on more than 10 million acres in Maine’s Unorganized Territory.

The partisan split was over who should select those commission members — and, more specifically, how many members should be appointed by Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican who has called for abolishing LURC.

Republican members say their plan takes politics out of the discussion about LURC’s fate by not including lawmakers and allowing LePage, the Senate President and the House Speaker to appoint residents representing various interest groups.

But Democrats on the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee foresee the exact opposite — a commission stacked with people predisposed to ending LURC’s 40-year oversight of Maine’s vast, undeveloped and largely uninhabited lands. Senate President Kevin Raye supports abolishing LURC as well.

“There was never any intention to compromise with us,” said Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan.

The committee has come a long way since the introduction of the original bill, which would have eliminated LURC and transferred the agency’s planning and permitting responsibilities to county governments.

But after five work sessions and numerous time extensions from legislative leaders, it was clear Thursday that the window for additional compromises had closed.

Republicans rejected two McCabe proposals to reduce the number of LePage appointees, culminating in tense exchanges between committee members.

“I think the majority party is going to do what it wants to do,” said Sen. Roger Sherman, R-Houlton, the committee co-chairman. “The majority party has given up more than we should have.”

LURC’s critics, including major landowners, accuse the commission of slowing economic development in the Unorganized Territory and, therefore, much of rural Maine. Some suggest counties would do a better job overseeing local permitting than the state agency.

The agency’s defenders, meanwhile, say the commission is only carrying out its charge to prevent sprawl in Maine’s wilderness areas. They also point out that since 2001, LURC has granted more than 91 percent of permit requests and that many of the unsuccessful ones were withdrawn by the applicants.

Yet there seemed to be unanimous support on the committee for changing oversight of the Unorganized Territory.

“The question is how do we go about addressing those concerns,” said Sen. Elizabeth Schneider, D-Orono.

Schneider accused Republicans of not wanting to compromise and took issue with suggestions that Democrats were employing delay tactics by pointing out the bill was held until the end of the legislative session.

Republican committee members, meanwhile, bristled at suggestions that they hadn’t worked with Democrats given the time spent on the bill and decision to study the issue.

“Everybody recognizes that something needs to be done,” said Sen. Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport. “I believe this sets a very clear path.”

Speaking after the meeting, the LePage administration’s conservation commissioner, William Beardsley, said he believes the most important thing will be to present the study group with the bare facts and history. He also disagreed that the commission will have a predetermined outcome.

“Landowners are not unified on this issue and neither is the environmental community,” Beardsley said.

But Pete Didisheim, advocacy director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, described the GOP-backed commission as a “thinly veiled” attempt to end LURC.

“From our perspective, the group of 13 people is designed to rubber stamp the proposal to abolish LURC,” Didisheim said.

Both the GOP and Democratic proposals will now head to the House and Senate for debate.

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