AUGUSTA, Maine — Both chambers of the Legislature have voted to postpone a decision about the future of the Land Use Regulation Commission until next year, pending a recommendation of a special study commission.
But LURC’s defenders say they fear the outcome of the commission will be pre-determined by stacking the group with members who prefer to abolish the agency that oversees planning, development and land use on more than 10 million acres.
As originally introduced, the bill, LD 1534, would have eliminated LURC and transferred the agency’s planning and permitting responsibilities to county governments. But after encountering significant opposition and after it became clear that they lacked the votes to pass the bill, Republicans changed the measure to propose the 13-member study commission.
The 13 members will include landowners, county commissioners, two residents of the Unorganized Territory, sportsmen, conservation groups, the tourism industry and economic development groups.
Those members will be appointed by Gov. Paul LePage, Senate President Kevin Raye and House Speaker Robert Nutting. Despite Democratic complaints, no lawmakers would serve on the task force.
“The whole point of this was to set up a neutral committee without the legislators messing it up,” said Sen. Roger Sherman, R-Houlton, chairman of the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee, which reviewed the bill.
But opponents point out that both LePage and Raye have been vocal advocates for eliminating LURC.
“It’s pretty clear they are going to be appointed by people who support abolishing LURC and the outcome is going to be a recommendation to abolish LURC,” said Cathy Johnson, the North Woods project director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine.
During debate on Friday, both Democrats and Republicans acknowledged that LURC needs to be changed to address concerns raised by critics that the agency is slowing or preventing economic development in the Unorganized Territory.
Sen. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley, went through a lengthy list of mills that have closed in rural Maine in recent decades.
“How many more jobs are we going to lose?” Thomas said. “Did LURC cause all of those jobs to go away? Of course it didn’t. Did it play a role? You bet it did.”
But Sen. Elizabeth Schneider, D-Orono, strongly refuted those suggestions, saying there was never any evidence presented that LURC has caused those job losses in the mills. Any problems with LURC, Schneider said, are not the fault of the agency staff or the commission members but instead are the result of the Legislature that sets the policies that LURC follows and its failure to address concerns.
“I really believe we need to stop pointing the finger when the Legislature is the creator of LURC and former of the framework that they work under,” Schneider said.
LURC defenders point out that since 2001, LURC has granted more than 90 percent of permit requests and that many of the unsuccessful ones were withdrawn by the applicants.
In the end, the Senate voted 22-12 to approve the bill creating a study commission. The House voted earlier this week 75-65 to approve the bill. The measure faces at least two more votes before being sent to LePage’s desk for his consideration.