AUGUSTA, Maine — Members of a state task force created to reform the Land Use Regulation Commission urged lawmakers Tuesday to quickly pass changes to LURC’s structure and rules. Many lawmakers balked, saying quick action was premature.
Department of Conservation Commissioner Bill Beardsley presented a set of recommendations to the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee, accompanied by draft legislation.
Those recommendations, approved unanimously by 13 task force members late last year, were the result of months of public hearings and sometimes contentious discussion. Beardsley said the LURC task force compromised in a number of areas to get to a unanimous agreement, and he hoped lawmakers might do the same.
“Setting forth this common ground is about as difficult as asking Tom Brady and Tim Tebow to reconcile their difference in the [NFL] playoff game this weekend,” Beardsley said. “We’ve done our best, the ball is now in your hands.”
While lawmakers praised the hard work of the LURC reform group, both Republicans and Democrats on the committee said they don’t intend to rush a decision.
Rep. Jeffrey Timberlake, R-Turner, said he didn’t ask specific questions about the proposal on Tuesday because it hasn’t been turned into a bill yet.
Sen. Elizabeth Schneider, D-Orono, said if and when a bill is created, it would become a committee bill, not a bill from the conservation commissioner.
“To do this and just say we’re going to accept his draft is not appropriate,” she said.
Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, stressed that committee members still have concerns about the recommendations, but he was reluctant to delve into details until after a public hearing on a bill.
The committee voted late Tuesday after much debate and behind-the-scenes wrangling to ask Beardsley and others to draft a formal bill based on the work group’s final report.
Among the recommendations of that report were:
• Retaining a statewide land use planning, zoning and permitting board for the Unorganized Territory, with the majority of board members selected by counties that contain such areas.
• Rewording LURC’s “Purpose and Scope” to value both conservation and economic viability. Task force members thought the current language was too heavily weighted toward preservation and didn’t emphasize economic development.
• Shifting major site development applications in the Unorganized Territory to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and forest management activities to the Maine Forest Service.
For four decades, LURC has acted as the planning and zoning board for state’s 10 million acres of Unorganized Territory. LURC has long been the target of criticism by landowners and companies doing business in Maine’s Unorganized Territory who contend the commission’s policies and staff have stalled economic development.
When the work group initially was created, many feared it would lead to the abolition of LURC. That fear was fueled after it was revealed that some of the appointees had spoken publicly in favor of abolishing the commission, but a compromise eventually emerged.
Although LURC was spared, concerns remain including allowing county commissioners to appoint themselves as LURC commissioners and allowing counties to opt out of LURC under certain criteria.
McCabe said the opt-out provision is the biggest sticking point for him but he also worried that a new LURC would not have an effective funding mechanism. The opt-out provision, for some, amounts to a phaseout of LURC over time.
A number of environmental groups have opposed the task force recommendations. Environment Maine said the changes give too much control to local counties and do not ensure enough legislative oversight.