GUEST COLUMN

Conservation and the GOP: another view

Posted June 10, 2011, at 9:24 p.m.

Many residents, landowners and businesses want reform of the Land Use Regulation Commission structure. LURC is the selectmen, planning board, board of appeals and code enforcement all-in-one for its 10 million acre jurisdiction. The commission is appointed, not elected. The LURC staff in Augusta, which is not elected or appointed, dominates the LURC process. The commission operates on information that is generated and presented by the staff. The commission, through the LURC staff in Augusta, has failed to balance conservation and economic development.

In the editorial, “Conservation and the GOP,” the BDN wrote: “the Republican Party seems to have lost its conservation ethic.” Sen. Kevin  Raye and the governor are responding to the concerns of constituents. We are asking Republicans and Democrats for relief from the unbalanced approach of LURC.

As was pointed out in the BDN editorial, “many of the region’s landowners have given up their development rights through conservation easements.” Many of these same conservation-minded landowners joined Sen. Raye in favor of a more balanced approach to land use planning and permitting. Nobody should mistake the representation that we are getting from Republicans for a lack of commitment to conservation. I hope that Democrats will recognize what we have experienced with LURC.

The editorial said LD 1534 would “abolish LURC and give its duties to the counties.” That is wrong. LD 1534 would have moved only a small portion of LURC duties to the counties. Guided by municipal law, the counties would serve as the municipality for small commercial and residential developments.

Only projects that did not require review by the Department of Environmental Protection under Maine’s site law would be considered by the counties. This would move control over small-scale economic development to Maine’s rural areas on a regional level. The remaining duties of LURC would be directed to the state agencies that are doing the work for LURC now. The Maine Forest Service would be responsible for all timber harvesting regulations. DEP would continue to administer the Natural Resources Protection Act and review larger commercial and residential projects.

The editorial asked: “What has the commission done that is so egregious?” The commission has not led. The staff runs LURC and the commission follows. The commission, through the staff, grants standing to a Massachusetts organization for  projects on private property in northern Maine. The commission holds hearings in southern Maine for projects on private property located in northern Maine.

The commission employs subjective criteria on rezoning applications, which reduces certainty and increases risk for businesses. This stops proposals before they start, which is bad for Maine’s rural areas.

The commission employs “department policy” to stop projects. These policies have no foundation in law, rule making or any other legislative process. The commission routinely and arbitrarily cuts back the scope of a proposed development to the point of marginal economic viability. I could go on.

The BDN wrote that LURC is not “heavy-handed” because it has approved “more than 90 percent of building and development permits and rezoning requests.” You cannot lump together permits to build a deck with rezoning applications.

Since 2006, we have had 50 percent success with rezoning permits. Our most recent project took four years and cost $400,000 to permit 20 lots. When LURC says 115 days for a subdivision permit, they left out the rezoning part. While I would agree that LURC cannot be blamed for all of the economic problems of Maine’s rural areas, they are not helping matters.

Development in LURC jurisdiction is going to occur mostly on the fringes. That is where the services exist. That is where the market is. There are millions of acres in conservation easements in LURC jurisdiction. Working forests never to be developed. There are access restrictions, market restrictions, site restrictions that would limit development in the Unorganized Territory. In addition, there are landowners in the UT whose long-term ownership objectives are not centered on development. Nobody is suggesting unfettered development in northern Maine.

It is time to build a system that balances conservation with economic development. LD 1534 has been amended to study the situation and do that. I urge Republicans and Democrats to support LD 1534 and work towards a balanced solution.

Ken Lamond is the owner of Family Forestry in Brewer. He is a licensed forester with and serves on the board of directors of the Maine Forest Products Council.

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