BANGOR, Maine — Under scrutiny from critics, members of the Land Use Regulation Commission reviewed how long it takes to process applications and solicited suggestions from staffers about ways the agency can improve.
Wednesday’s exercise came several weeks before a 13-member task force established by the Legislature begins reviewing how the state handles planning and permitting on more than 10 million acres in Maine.
While some critics have called for returning LURC’s oversight responsibilities to the counties, others defend the agency’s small staff as they work to guide development throughout Maine’s vast Unorganized Territory.
“We have 10.4 million acres in our jurisdiction and right now we have 10 permitting and compliance people,” said Commissioner Ed Laverty. “That is 1 million acres apiece.”
LURC has legislative approval for 25 staff positions, although several of those are now vacant or frozen. The agency’s budget for 2012 is roughly $2 million, $1.9 million of which is to pay salaries, benefits and other personnel costs for a full staff.
According to figures provided to commission members on Wednesday, LURC has approved roughly 92 percent of all permit applications since the agency was established in 1971. That approval rate peaked at 96 percent between 1996 and 2000 but has hovered at roughly 93 percent for the past decade.
One complaint leveled against LURC by some critics is the time it takes to process permit applications. Data indicate that the processing time varies dramatically depending on the permit type.
For instance, it took agency staff, on average, 11 days to process the nearly 2,900 permits for residential buildings filed between 2006 and 2010, down from an average of 25 days during the previous five-year period. Approximately 98 percent of those permits were approved, with just 36 out of the 2,900 being rejected or withdrawn. The wait for nonresidential building permits was 45 days.
Processing times for subdivision permits and rezoning requests, on the other hand, increased from 2001 to 2010. On average, it took LURC staff 155 days to process the comparatively small number of residential subdivision permits and 210 days to process rezoning requests, up from 112 days and 78 days, respectively. In both cases, less than 1 percent of applications were rejected or withdrawn.
Commissioner Toby Hammond, while praising LURC staff for their work, expressed concerns about the fact that some applicants are waiting longer today than they were in past years.
“Unless there is something in there that is skewing those numbers, and I can’t tell that, it certainly looks like it is heading in the wrong direction,” Hammond said.
Senior planner Tim Beaucage told commissioners that a few unusual projects could indeed skew those figures. For instance, Plum Creek’s concept plan application for its housing and resort proposals in the Moosehead Lake region took several years to process.
Beaucage also pointed out that in many instances the applications that ultimately were rejected or withdrawn often took considerably longer than those that were approved.
“To me, that shows that the commission and staff have, over time, been working on trying to get approvable projects for applicants,” Beaucage said.
That said, both commissioners and LURC staffers said there are clearly areas where policies can be streamlined.
“I think there are always opportunities to improve what we do, particularly in a changing environment,” said Commissioner Gwen Hilton.
During a roundtable discussion with staff members from several LURC offices, staffers recommended doing more outreach to educate the public about policies and permitting requirements.
Additionally, several staff members said they are putting a greater emphasis on visiting sites with applicants before construction begins. Although pre-construction site visits take extra time, they can often help avoid violations that would consume even more time to correct, staff said.
Roderick Falla, who recently was appointed as acting division manager of compliance and enforcement at LURC, said improving the processing of applications is a top priority. As one example, Falla said he is working to improve a common LURC application that now takes up to two hours for people to fill out.
Falla said he also believes the commission should consider reducing some fees that he believes are excessive given the offense.
But both staff and commissioners said LURC lacks the resources it needs, both in terms of manpower and equipment. For instance, the Greenville office only has one vehicle for a staff of four or five responsible for Piscataquis and Somerset counties.
Additionally, LURC does not have any boats, snowmobiles or other equipment for staff to use to perform site visits at remote camps. LURC staff director Catherine Carroll said she believes agencies within the Department of Conservation could do a better job of sharing resources, such as trucks and boats.