Panel’s final recommendation: Give counties more power over land use

Posted Dec. 01, 2011, at 12:50 p.m.
Last modified Dec. 02, 2011, at 10:33 a.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Two months after convening amid heavy skepticism and scrutiny, a panel exploring ways to reform the Land Use Regulation Commission settled Thursday on a compromise that could give county governments more input on decisions affecting more than 10 million acres in Maine.

The compromise aims to better balance the economic interests of private landowners frustrated with LURC policies with the strong statewide interest in protecting the vast forestlands that make Maine unique. How those recommendations will fare once they reach the political arena in Augusta, however, is another matter.

“We have tried to come up with something feasible and a positive step in the right direction,” said Bill Beardsley, commissioner of the Maine Department of Conservation and co-chair of the panel. “We fully realize that this is not going to be the end of this. The process is just beginning.”

The panel’s recommendation, which received unanimous support from the 12 of 13 members present Thursday, would increase from seven to nine the number of commissioners charged with overseeing planning, zoning and permitting in the largest undeveloped tract of forestland in the U.S. east of the Mississippi River.

While the governor now nominates all seven LURC commissioners, Maine’s chief executive would only pick three members of the revised commission. The remaining six members would be county commissioners or their designees from the six counties with the most acreage in the Unorganized Territory.

The proposal also calls for:

  1. Allowing counties to take on minor permitting responsibilities now handled by LURC, such as issuing permits for new buildings or renovations.
  2. Encouraging LURC — which would likely be renamed — to work with counties to develop regional comprehensive planning and zoning.
  3. Establishing a process whereby counties could withdraw from LURC as long as they meet several criteria, including creation of a planning board and a comprehensive plan.
  4. Transferring permitting responsibilities for commercial wind power projects within the UT to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and enforcement of forestry regulations to the Maine Forest Service.

But to the dismay of some panel members, the commission side-stepped several key issues that have made LURC a political target for years, including the commission’s anti-sprawl policy requiring new development be located adjacent to existing development or infrastructure. Instead, the group recommended that lawmakers address the adjacency issue as well as LURC requirements that seek to minimize the visual impact of developments on the landscape.

“Adjacency has been used to the detriment of a lot of people who had plans for their property,” said Hank McPherson, a panel member and vocal LURC critic who was forced to scale back a development on Moosehead Lake because of the adjacency requirement.

The prospect of a unanimous recommendation on reforming LURC seemed unlikely six months ago.

Lawmakers created the reform panel in June after heated debate over a bill, LD 1534, to eliminate LURC and transfer responsibilities to county governments. But even the makeup of the panel became a political issue, with LURC’s supporters suggesting that Gov. Paul LePage and Republican leaders would stack the panel with people intent on abolishing the agency.

Several ardent LURC critics were named to the group, but dismantling the agency was never seriously discussed. Instead, the disparate parties settled on the plan to give six of the new commission’s nine seats to county commissioners from Penobscot, Piscataquis, Somerset, Franklin, Aroostook and Washington counties.

That change aims to address criticisms that residents and landowners within the UT do not have enough sway with the current commission and that economic development in the jurisdiction has been stymied by LURC policies.

“If nothing else comes out of this, it is that we recognize that the agency is not fine; it is broken,” said Chris Gardner, a Washington County commissioner and outspoken critic of LURC.

Of course, not everyone agrees with Gardner’s assessment or with the shift toward giving county commissioners six of the nine seats.

Cathy Johnson with the Natural Resources Council of Maine said her organization fears that the proposed commission will be more political and less likely to look after statewide interests in protecting the UT’s natural resources because county commissioners are elected to represent local interests. Johnson also said a recommendation allowing counties to withdraw from LURC runs counter to efforts to create unified statewide standards.

“Obviously we are pleased that they backed away from abolishing LURC,” Johnson said. “But there are a lot of provisions in this proposal that could be major problems.”

Likewise, Alexandra Fields of Environment Maine said the North Woods are at the heart of Maine’s natural identity and she worried LURC’s statewide scope would be diminished with six county commissioners.

But panel member Don White, who is president and CEO of the timberland management firm Prentice & Carlisle, said he believes the recommendations are balanced and that all interest groups will find parts of the report to like and dislike.

“This would be a big improvement” for landowners, White said.

Patrick Strauch, executive director of the Maine Forest Products Council, said landowners believe LURC was increasingly “regulating away opportunities on the land.” County commissioners, Strauch said, will hopefully have a better understanding of the need to balance the economic interests of the landowners with conservation interests.

A staffer within the Department of Conservation will now write the final report to be presented to the Legislature. Lawmakers are expected to consider those recommendations during the legislative session that begins in January, although they are under no obligation to follow them.

Rep. Jeff McCabe, a Skowhegan Democrat who has closely followed the reform debate, said lawmakers may be hesitant to relinquish the right to review and approve LURC members. But he described the overall report as a “good product” with compromises from all sides.

“It is easy to come up with problems,” McCabe said. “They came up with some ways out” of the problems.

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