June 23, 2018
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A better LURC is close

John Clarke Russ | BDN
John Clarke Russ | BDN
Members of the Land Use Regulation Commission, including (from left) James A. Nadeau, commission director Catherine M. Carroll, commission chair E. Bart Harvey and Gwendolyn Hilton, listen to one of nearly 150 concerned residents voice an opinion about the Plum Creek development plan during a public hearing at Greenville High School in 2008.

Gov. Paul LePage and many Republican legislators wanted to kill LURC, the Land Use Regulation Commission. LURC is the state body that stands in the place of planning boards and zoning boards of appeal in the 10.5 million acres of unorganized territory, the parts of Maine without municipal government. The governor and other critics say LURC stands in the way of economic growth in the unorganized territories.

The governor and Legislature created a task force that critics believed was merely going through the motions of evaluating LURC and instead was bent on eliminating the commission.

But somewhere on its road trip around the state, the task force set aside wanting to retire LURC and instead began to approach a way to reconfigure it. The task force is close to some reasonable fixes. To bring the effort home, members should be wary of hyperbolic rhetoric and instead focus on how they might have created a regulatory body from scratch if none existed.

One of several legitimate gripes about LURC is that its members don’t necessarily hail from the very different regions within its jurisdiction.

The proposal now on the task force’s table as it approaches its final meeting is to change membership to better represent those regions. It would expand membership from seven to nine members; six seats would be filled by a county commissioner or a county commission designate from each of the counties with large parcels of land in the UT. Those counties are Aroostook, Franklin, Somerset, Penobscot, Piscataquis and Washington.

Currently, four LURC members must be knowledgeable in one or more of these fields: forestry, fish and wildlife, commerce and industry or conservation. The current version requires that at least two members are residents of the UT.

Requiring representation from the six counties brings local knowledge of development history, resource inventory and management and economic opportunity. As LURC weighs a proposal, the local county commissioner could inform his or her colleagues that the site has a history of heavy logging, or that camps existed there until 25 years ago, or that a sporting lodge would be complemented by the development proposed.

But there are risks in putting county commissioners on LURC. As elected officials, they are political creatures. They may pander to the voters at home, or they may trade votes — you vote for my project, I’ll vote for yours.

Another component of the reconfigured LURC calls for moving permitting for forestry management, wind power projects and minor subdivisions off the commission’s plate. The Maine Forest Service would pick up logging, the Department of Environmental Protection would take on permitting for commercial wind projects and the county governments would take on minor subdivision and building permits. This also seems reasonable, and would likely expedite some development.

The beefed-up role for county governments comes from an earlier proposal touted by Gov. LePage in which LURC would have been eliminated and each individual county would issue permits for projects in the UT within their jurisdiction. That would mean that three county commissioners with limited expertise would be giving the thumbs up or down on a project the size of the Plum Creek proposal near Greenville, a poor outcome.

Underlying the LURC debate is the oft-expressed view that people in developed, more prosperous southern Maine block development in rural, northern Maine so the North Woods remains parklike for their enjoyment. There may be some truth to this scenario. But all Mainers rightfully should have some say over the fate of natural assets like Moosehead Lake and hundreds of thousands of acres of forest.

A compromise may be within reach, but it must accept the premise that careful planning and thoughtful regulation are the right course for the UT.

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