AUGUSTA, Maine — The commission charged with reforming the state agency overseeing development in Maine’s 10.5 million acres of unorganized territory gave its first progress report Thursday to the Legislature’s Agricultural Committee.
A summary of the report: The commission has a lot of work to do.
So much, in fact, that one member, Gary Lamb, said he would be surprised if the commission could give the Legislature something detailed enough to help lawmakers craft legislation that could be considered during next year’s abbreviated session.
“We will certainly give you something to chew on,” said Lamb, town manager of Greenville.
Some worry that the 13-member panel’s lack of progress reflects a dominating undercurrent within the panel to abolish the Land Use Regulation Commission rather than improve it.
Pete Didisheim, advocacy director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said the commission continues to discuss anecdotal problems with LURC, not solutions based on current data. Didisheim, who has attended the panel’s work sessions, said some members have spent too much time reinforcing the feelings they had about LURC.
“If there was an impression left today that these meetings have been smooth and constructive, they’re not,” he said. “People are venting and sharing anecdotes. They’re not really managing the conversation in a way [that leads to policy].”
Didisheim used as an example data presented by Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, showing that the perception that LURC moved at a glacial pace approving residential permits to build homes or docks wasn’t supported by facts.
Since January, 315 building permits have been submitted to LURC and 312 have been accepted. The average turnaround was four days.
“Four days,” Didisheim said. “That is the current experience to build a house or put in a dock.”
Commission member Don Kleiner said residents in the unorganized territories have long memories. But McCabe and Didisheim said that effective policy can’t be crafted on “30-year-old anecdotes.”
“They’re going around the table with rhetoric,” McCabe said afterward. “Let’s stop the rhetoric. Give us an example of a project that’s failed and let’s study that to find ways to improve LURC.”
Conservation Commissioner Bill Beardsley, who is leading the study group, told the Agricultural Committee he was confident the commission was moving toward a consensus that lawmakers could use to draft legislation.
Beardsley said the commission appeared to agree that county government should play a greater role in unorganized territory planning, while the state should still oversee large projects.
Didisheim believes the commission hasn’t adequately studied whether counties can afford or handle the additional planning duties, but Beardsley said he wasn’t concerned.
“Towns and counties have as much capacity to do planning as LURC,” Beardsley said. “I just don’t see a financial or staffing levels issues at the county level.”
The commission’s members were handpicked by Gov. Paul LePage, Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry, and House Speaker Robert Nutting, R-Oakland. Each has expressed support for dismantling LURC.
Seven of the 13 members have previously testified in support of getting rid of the agency.
That worries Didisheim.
“I think most of the people who were appointed to the committee came to this with a point of view and they’ve repeated that point of view,” he said. “It still feels like it may end up where it started.”
While those who would dismantle LURC may dominate the commission, it still appears that a majority of Republicans in the Legislature are cool to the idea. That lack of support existed last session when Raye’s bill to abolish LURC was transformed into the study commission.
McCabe believes there’s even less support for doing away with LURC now than there was several months ago.
“I think a lot of people realize the need for regional planning and regional input in this area,” he said, adding that businesses that may wish to develop in the UT would have greater predictability dealing with one set of planning rules than if counties adopted uneven standards.
The commission presented some ideas that it has been considering. They include:
• A jurisdiction-wide planning authority for the UT to develop comprehensive planning, zoning and permitting activities.
• Wind-power projects and other projects that trigger the Natural Resources Protection Act would be shifted to the Department of Environmental Protection.
• Timber harvesting in the UT should be overseen by the Maine Forest Service.
• Changing LURC’s mission statement to balance the need of protecting the UT’s natural beauty and resources with the economic vitality of the UT’s communities.
• Allow counties to develop their own comprehensive plans.
• Expansion of so-called permit-by-rule projects that are currently authorized by LURC.
The LURC reform commission’s next meeting is scheduled for Nov. 3 at Washington County Community College in Calais.
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