Reform panel looks to reconfigure LURC rather than abolish it

Posted Nov. 17, 2011, at 6:06 p.m.
Last modified Nov. 17, 2011, at 9 p.m.

GREENVILLE — Maine’s Land Use Regulation Commission would be renamed, its membership reconfigured and some of its permitting responsibilities transferred to other agencies under a reform proposal emerging from a task force.

But contrary to initial fears from some LURC supporters, a majority of the reform panel’s members do not appear inclined to dismantle the state agency that oversees planning, zoning and permitting on more than 10 million acres in Maine.

During a meeting in Greenville on Thursday, members of the commission charged with recommending ways to improve LURC unanimously endorsed a plan that would give county governments more say in policies and decisions regarding the Unorganized Territory.

All seven members of LURC now are nominated by the governor and approved by the Legislature. The reform panel’s proposal — which is not yet completed — would increase the size of the yet-to-be-named commission from seven to nine members.

Only three of those members would be selected by the governor. The other six members would be county commissioners — or their designees — from the six counties with the most acreage within the Unorganized Territory.

The proposal, if approved by the Legislature, represents a compromise between the two primary camps in the LURC debate.

Adding county commissioners to the board would address concerns of LURC’s critics that residents and landowners within the UT do not have enough sway with the commission. But Maine would retain a single commission responsible for overseeing planning and development throughout the 10.5 million-acre UT, an important issue to those who support LURC’s mission.

Thursday’s meeting was the fifth of six planned by the LURC Reform Commission, which was established by the Legislature earlier this year after a spirited debate about LURC’s future. The final meeting is scheduled for Dec. 1 on the former Bangor Theological Seminary campus.

Panel members also endorsed shifting some of LURC’s regulatory responsibilities to other agencies. The Maine Forest Service would regulate forest management while the Maine Department of Environmental Protection would take over permitting for commercial wind power projects located within the UT. Additionally, the proposal would allow counties to assume responsibility for some minor permitting, such as building permits and smaller subdivisions in the UT.

But while all of Thursday’s votes were unanimous, members were not always in total agreement on some issues. For example, panel members had a lengthy debate about whether counties should have the option of withdrawing from participation in LURC.

Chris Gardner, a Washington County commissioner and a vocal proponent for returning more LURC powers to the counties, argued forcefully for an opt-out clause in case local residents are dissatisfied with the reconfigured commission.

“Leaving that threat in the legislation will keep the agency honest so we don’t have to do this all again,” Gardner said.

But Bill Beardsley, commissioner of the Maine Department of Conservation, which houses LURC, asked whether counties needed an “extra exit strategy” if the majority of commission members would be representing the counties.

Member Elbridge Cleaves, meanwhile, pointed out that one of the biggest complaints voiced by landowners about LURC was a lack of predictability. Allowing counties to opt out would seem to add more unpredictability, he said

“The more we interject change, the less predictability there is going to be,” Cleaves said.

Ultimately, the group settled on only allowing counties to withdraw after the commission has been in place for three years. Additionally, counties would have to meet a litany of pre-withdrawal requirements, including developing a comprehensive plan for UT land that meets state standards and establishing a planning board, zoning ordinances and an appeals process.

The panel also agreed in principle that counties should be able to petition LURC to initiate a process to develop regional comprehensive planning and zoning for parts of the UT within those counties — something that has been discussed extensively by LURC for decades but only has been completed a few times.

The panel will have to resolve several substantial issues during its meeting scheduled for Dec. 1. Some of the thorniest involve LURC’s adjacency standard, which requires new development to be located near existing development or infrastructure, as well as requirements that projects blend into the natural surroundings.

Hank McPherson, a landowner and developer who has sparred with LURC over the adjacency standard, said such regulations lessen the value of property.

“Any time you remove value from a landowner, you remove economic development” opportunities in the UT, McPherson said.

But other members cautioned against the panel venturing too far down that road and instead recommended allowing the Legislature to settle such issues.

Comments from the roughly 20 people who addressed the panel during a listening session largely echoed themes heard at other meetings held around the state. While some speakers gave personal accounts of delays or problems they’ve experienced dealing with LURC on permits, others praised the commission staff and urged the panel to maintain strong protections for Maine’s natural resources.

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