June 18, 2018
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LURC in the Balance

Few state agencies have generated the animosity leveled at the Land Use Regulation Commission. Since its creation 40 years ago, the commission, which oversees planning and development in the state’s 10 million acres of Unorganized Territory, has been criticized for being too strict, too slow, too bureaucratic.

During that same time, however, Maine has burnished its reputation for outdoor recreation. The Unorganized Territory, first made famous by naturalist and writer Henry David Thoreau, continues to draw hunters, fishermen, canoeists, hikers and others to its unspoiled waters (home to one of the country’s last populations of wild brook trout) and scenic vistas.

The region remains a draw because LURC has protected the North Maine Woods from haphazard development that would have diminished the region as a national and international destination for thousands of sportsmen every year.

At the same time, the region remains home to privately owned timberlands that supply mills in Maine and beyond.

These qualities are important to people who live far beyond LURC’s jurisdiction, which also includes many coastal islands. So, leaving decisions about development and other activities in the unorganized territories only to those who live there is risky. Residents and land owners should have a strong voice in decisions about the unorganized territories, but it shouldn’t be the only voice.

A newly appointed commission, created by the Legislature and charged with “reforming the governance of land use planning,” must keep in mind LURC’s successes as well as its shortcomings.

LURC, like any government entity, is far from perfect. It may need clearer standards and a mechanism to more quickly assess large projects. But it doesn’t need to be abolished.

There was much talk in the last legislative session about disbanding LURC and giving its duties to the counties. When legislation to do this appeared headed for defeat, the study committee was created.

Environmental groups fear that the group, which is heavily weighted with those who are critical of LURC, is a backdoor way to end the agency.

This would be a mistake.

County commissions could easily decide whether an addition to a camp is appropriate. But, such a body would have a hard time assessing whether Plum Creek Timber Co.’s development plans, the largest proposed in Maine, were right for the region’s residents, businesses, natural resources and visitors.

Further, having a coherent plan for the Unorganized Territory is far preferable to a piecemeal approach that takes into account only local concerns.

Finding ways to spur economic growth in rural Maine is essential. But it can’t come at the expense of weakening the planning and, where appropriate, protections that have kept the Maine Woods a special place that draws people from around the world.

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