Panel sets ground rules for LURC reform effort

Posted Sept. 22, 2011, at 1:23 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 22, 2011, at 7:18 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Members of a task force exploring ways to reform the Land Use Regulation Commission pledged to approach their task with open minds on Thursday and quickly crafted a list of values they believe should guide decisions affecting Maine’s Unorganized Territory.

But the real challenge will begin in two weeks as the panel begins delving into the contentious and challenging issues regarding a state agency responsible for planning, zoning and permitting on nearly 10.5 million acres in Maine.

Senate President Kevin Raye, who does not have a seat on the panel but who appointed four of the members, opened Thursday’s session by saying he has heard “countless concerns” about LURC during his years in the Legislature. But in an apparent response to some critics, the Perry Republican said he can envision “an array of options” that may or may not include abolishing the commission.

“I believe you will find the Legislature is open and eager to hear your input at the conclusion of this process,” said Raye, whose district includes a significant amount of land in the Unorganized Territory.

Thursday’s meeting, held on the Husson University campus, was the first of about a half dozen scheduled around northern, western and eastern Maine by the LURC reform group. Members tentatively agreed to hold subsequent sessions — scheduled for every other Thursday — in Solon, Ashland, Calais and Greenville in an attempt to discuss the issues in areas regulated by LURC.

Much of Thursday’s discussion focused on what the group could agree upon about government’s role in the UT, an area inhabited by less than 20,000 residents that nonetheless is central to Maine’s wood products industry, tourism economy and even the cultural identity of the state.

The agreed-upon vision statement included: that uniform standards for forestry, wildlife habitat and agriculture as well as sound planning, zoning and permitting principles should persist; residents of and landowners within the UT should have significant impact and input on decisions; strong environmental protections should be maintained while recognizing the land is private property; and Maine should encourage and facilitate regional economic vitality in the UT.

The task force was born out of legislative debate spearheaded by some lawmakers and interested parties who argued that many of LURC’s regulatory responsibilities — such as permitting — should be handed back to local or county governments.

Washington County Commissioner Chris Gardner was among the most ardent proponents for dismantling LURC. Now a member of the reform commission, Gardner said he and others went to Augusta “with pitchforks in hand” because LURC wasn’t listening.

But now that LURC is listening, Gardner said, he is prepared to step back and help discuss how best to proceed.

“My mindset on this as we go forward is we need to put as much local control in the people’s hands as is fiscally responsible and structurally sound,” Gardner told his fellow panel members.

“Local control” was definitely one of the buzzwords during the first meeting, although it was clear that not everyone on the panel agreed on whether relegating some of LURC’s responsibilities to county governments would be efficient administratively or financially.

LURC has for years been a popular target of criticism by some landowners who accuse the agency of slowing economic development in the UT and placing a disproportionate emphasis on protecting land from development. Some of that sentiment was evident Thursday.

“I’m not sure we need to euthanize the patient, but I certainly believe it needs some surgery,” said Donald White, president and CEO of the timberland management firm Prentiss & Carlisle.

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 applying statewide standards and ensuring development does not spoil the natural beauty that makes Maine unique.

Even before the legislation creating the reform panel was signed into law, some Democratic lawmakers and LURC supporters questioned whether the group would be stacked with members intent on abolishing the commission. And several people named to the panel have, indeed, in the past called for terminating the 40-year-old agency.

But no one called for dismantling the agency on Thursday. Instead, the panel largely struck a conciliatory tone.

“I’m here to listen today,” said Judith Cooper East of Washington County. “I’m not coming with a preconceived notion about the outcome.”

Group members decided Thursday to open up the floor to public comments at the end of each of their meetings. During the first such “listening session,” several speakers said they were pleased with the tone of what they heard so far.

“I came here today expecting to see the ‘Kill LURC’ commission,” said Steve Wight, who served 23 years as a LURC commissioner before stepping down a few years ago. “I’m very impressed with what I have seen here today.”

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