ELLSWORTH, Maine — The first meeting has yet to be scheduled, but the newly formed task force charged with recommending a better way to oversee land use on more than 10 million acres in Maine is already coming under close scrutiny.
Environmental groups and Democratic lawmakers on Monday criticized the makeup of a task force that could help decide the future of the Land Use Regulation Commission, the state agency that has handled planning and permitting in Maine’s Unorganized Territory for the past 40 years.
The organizations and lawmakers suggested that the task force’s membership — as selected by Republicans Gov. Paul LePage, Senate President Kevin Raye and House Speaker Bob Nutting — appears heavily weighted toward those in favor of abolishing rather than reforming LURC.
“We were afraid the process would be rigged and would lead to a pre-determined outcome, and the membership of this committee certainly makes those fears feel well-founded,” said Cathy Johnson with the Natural Resources Council of Maine.
But several appointees as well as a representative of the LePage administration insisted that they were going into the review process with an open mind and a goal of improving the situation in the UT, whether through LURC or another oversight system.
“We can review [LURC] and maybe we’ll change it or maybe do away with it. Maybe we’ll come up with something different,” said Bob Dunphy, a Somerset County commissioner named to the panel. “I am open minded to whatever will fit best for the State of Maine as a whole.”
LePage, meanwhile, made clear at a recent town hall meeting in Aroostook County that he expects the group to recommend major changes to LURC.
“There’s a task force that’s establishing how it’s going to work in the future, and I can tell you this: It will not be in the hands of the state. It’s going to go back — likely — to the counties,” LePage told a crowd in Presque Isle last week.
LURC has for years been a popular target of criticism by some landowners who accuse the agency of slowing economic development in the Unorganized Territory. The agency’s defenders, meanwhile, point to the fact that very few projects are rejected by LURC and insist the commission plays a crucial role in ensuring development does not spoil the natural beauty that makes Maine unique.
The question of what to do with — or to — LURC emerged as a major political issue in the waning days of the 2011 legislative session. Raye originally had introduced a bill — strongly supported by the LePage administration — to effectively disband LURC and transfer many of the agency’s responsibilities back to the counties.
The Legislature’s Republican leadership settled on a 13-member commission to recommend solutions after it became clear that the bill did not have enough support to pass. But even the question of who should appoint commission members became marred by partisan distrust, a fact reflected in reactions to last Friday’s announcement of the panel membership.
“The deck is clearly stacked with folks who have been vocal about abolishing LURC,” Rep. Jeff McCabe, a Skowhegan Democrat involved in the debate over LURC’s fate, said in a statement on Monday. “We had pushed for an objective study commission that would recommend substantive reforms to improve LURC, not a transition team to lead to its elimination.”
By Johnson’s count, six of the 30-plus people who testified in support of Raye’s bill, LD 1534, during public hearings were named to the panel while only one person representing a group opposed to the bill — Tom Rumpf with The Nature Conservancy — made it onto the commission.
The six who supported Raye’s bill were Dunphy, Conservation Commissioner Bill Beardsley, Prentiss & Carlisle President and CEO Don White, Washington County Commissioner Chris Gardner, Sarah Medina with Seven Islands Land Co., and developer and timberland owner Hank McPherson.
In an interview, Dunphy acknowledged that he has been supportive of allowing counties to handle permitting and regulation in the UT using the same state laws that municipalities now use. It doesn’t make sense, Dunphy argued, for LURC to force landowners in the UT to live under different standards than the rest of the state.
Even so, Dunphy reiterated that he is open to hearing all suggestions and will go along with the will of the commission.
“Whatever the committee decides, I will vote for,” Dunphy said. “I am not biased.”
Beardsley also disagreed with the criticism of the panel’s membership, saying he believes there will be “very good, wide-open dialogue” with no pre-determined outcome.
“I see very competent people that are open-minded, and I also see people who will leave their personal interests behind,” said Beardsley, who now oversees LURC despite calling for the agency’s dismantlement while running for governor. “I see people with very different perspectives.”
Panel member Don Kleiner, executive director of the Maine Professional Guides Association, who was chosen to represent sportsmen, acknowledged that the group faces a difficult task.
Many of the complaints that Kleiner said he receives from guides and landowners deal more with what he called “customer service issues,” such as slow response from LURC staffers or landowners feeling like they were not dealt with fairly.
For his part, Kleiner doesn’t count himself among the “dismantle LURC” crowd but said he truly hasn’t made up his mind on how best to address the legitimate concerns from UT residents and landowners.
“I’m not walking in there and saying, ‘The first thing we need to do is get rid of LURC,’ because it is pretty clear to me that we need some statewide standards,” Kleiner said. “Environmental standards need to be statewide. Forestry standards need to be statewide.”