June 24, 2018
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Consider future of LURC carefully

By Steve Bien, Special to the BDN

Some are casting the current debate about the future of LURC as a question of representative government.

To Sen. Kevin Raye, who heads the committee that will decide the future of the Land Use Regulation Commission, and Gov. Paul LePage, it is about local control: let the people and their county governments decide how the Unorganized Territories are to be managed and developed. Sen. Raye has gone so far as to say: “The agency [LURC] more closely resembles a colonial power … The fact is that the LURC model is not worthy of a democratic society.”

But that line of argument gets sticky because you have to ask, which people? The roughly 12,000 voters who are spread out across these 10 million acres? What about the landowners, a distinctly different population? Between them, Plum Creek, Irving Paper and John Malone, all of out-of-staters, own 90 percent of the region, so what should their vote be?

This is a remarkable mirror image to what Hildreth and Richardson thought 30 years ago. Here is what Hoddy Hildreth said on this matter: “Of course, the people who live in the UT should be heard and given a chance to talk about their point of view, but that doesn’t mean that just because they live in an Unorganized Territory that they should have control over the whole thing. This is a democracy, and the Unorganized Territories are a physical and historical aspect of the state of Maine that can’t be treated as the private interest of a very few people who happen to live nearest it.”

The Unorganized Territories or, more romantically, Maine’s North Woods are fully half of our state and constitute the largest block of forest land east of the Mississippi. Equal in size to Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island combined, it is what defines our state’s geography, character and culture and we all have a stake in its outcome, not as a series of fragmented parcels but as the distinct region it is.

The motives of the governor are clear. He has said plainly that he would like to see 30 percent of the North Woods open to development and Raye has echoed these remarks in talks he has given to the business community.

Seeing dollar signs dancing before them, seven of the eight county governments, Franklin County included, have spoken in favor of taking over UT jurisdiction. The dissenting voice instructively comes from the largest holder of Unorganized Territory, Piscataquis County. Its county commission chairman, Tom Lizotte, has said that these counties are fooling themselves if they think they can take this on.

As he put it, “County government is anachronistic, dysfunctional, and has no experience with land-use development in Maine.” Lizotte thinks that county governments will simply be overwhelmed by the size, complexity and expense of regulating development in their borders. His estimate of the annual cost of this responsibility is somewhere north of $300,000 per year.

Certainly even LURC has been overwhelmed by the task of regulation, most recently relying on Plum Creek staff for some of the research and leg work required to address that company’s Greenville proposal.

The Legislature tabled the proposal to end LURC, preferring to pass the onerous task to a special commission that will reconvene in January. But the empowered committee is led by three individuals who are clearly opposed to LURC so the stay of execution may well be brief.

Their deliberations may be out of the public eye but we should raise our voices loudly and clearly that we are opposed to this move. However imperfect, LURC is a far cry better than the proposed alternative, which would spell open season on the North Woods.

Does LURC need strengthening? Yes. It needs to be realistically funded, not run on the current shoe string, and the professional staff need to be accorded professional responsibility and respect in the regulatory process, not simply used to supply fig leaves for the politically influenced decisions made by the commissioners and director.

Most importantly it needs to follow the wording of its own governing principles as codified in the recently updated Comprehensive Land Use Plan. But the baby should not be thrown out with the bathwater.

Steve Bien, who serves on the board of Western Maine Audubon, is a physician who lives in Jay.

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