Since August, the task force charged with reforming the Land Use Regulatory Commission, which governs the unorganized territory, has traveled the state listening to people who live and work in the region. The message has largely been the same across the board — improve LURC, don’t abolish it.
The way we govern Maine’s 10.4 million acres of unorganized territory has an effect on our economy, our environment and the lives of the people who live there. It is critical that any reforms for how we govern the largest contiguous forest in the Northeast reflect a fair balance between these interests.
We are pleased to see that the LURC reform task force has rejected the extreme proposal to eliminate the board, and has instead focused on how to increase the role the counties play in governing the land. While we strongly support the majority of the recommendations from the commission, we have serious reservations about the provision to allow counties to “opt-out” of LURC.
The county opt-out will jeopardize the meaningful and practical reforms the panel outlines for LURC. We are setting the new reforms up to fail if we don’t require the counties to follow them. In fact, the opt-out provision undermines the redefined purpose and scope of the proposed land use and zoning board.
The task force’s recommendation for the purpose and scope of LURC has a lengthy definition, but it states clearly that it is in the public interest and benefit to encourage sound planning, zoning and development in the unorganized and de-organized territories. Allowing counties to opt-out undermines the public interest and benefit. If the counties can get an exemption from the rules, what is the point of having them?
Why did the panel spend many months carefully crafting recommendations that may simply be ignored? The result will be a patchwork of regulations, lack of regional zoning and unpredictability for landowners and businesses; a nightmare scenario that is exactly what Mainers expect LURC to prevent.
Reforms to LURC should include putting more emphasis on local control and giving county governments greater say on the representatives serving on the board. This is the kind of change that will help achieve the right balance in the unorganized territories.
However, the current recommendations allow county commissioners to make appointments to the board without approval by the Legislature. They can even appoint themselves to the board. We believe the members of the board should have to undergo a more transparent vetting process through the Legislature to ensure more accountability.
The Agricultural, Conservation and Forestry Committee will begin carefully reviewing the task force’s recommendations this week. The recommendations include improvements for the review process and more practical logistical changes. Some of the key recommendations include:
• Shifting some of the traditional responsibilities for reviewing major site developments in the unorganized territory to the Department of Environmental Protection and forest management activities to the Maine Forest Service.
• More predictability and consistency in rules and standards and more formalized communication about the board rulings.
• Increasing the accessibility of the board to those living in the unorganized territories — holding meetings in or close to the unorganized territory and locating staff there, too. These practical solutions would likely go a long way to improving communications and relations between the agency and the people living in the unorganized territory.
We believe these reforms are a good step in the right direction but feel strongly about removing the opt-out provision and providing greater oversight of the board nominations. Eight months ago it would have been hard to believe that there could be a bipartisan solution for reforming LURC. The issue was a lightning rod during the first session of the Legislature. Thanks to the thoughtful work of the LURC reform task force, lawmakers may just be able to find common ground.
Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, is the ranking House Democrat on the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee. Steve Wight of Newry served on LURC for 23 years, including 10 as chair.