June 24, 2018
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LURC reform: unorganized territories have right to self-determination

By Rodney Whittemore, Special to the BDN

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Legislature created the Land Use Regulation Commission to take over planning and zoning in the unorganized territory of Maine. This agency was created with admirable intentions, but has evolved to become what we all dislike about state government.

This insulated agency deprives property owners and residents of the unorganized territory the right of self-determination and local accountability, an alien condition which is no longer acceptable.

We, as Mainers, realize it is in our best interest to balance economic development with conservation. And to exemplify this, Maine has a robust natural resource economy manifesting itself in several forms, be it renewable wood fiber or some of the best outdoor recreation on the East Coast, which operates along with robust environmental regulations.

Mainers care a great deal about their environment. Conservation successes such as the Downeast Lakes Land Trust in Grand Lake Stream exemplify those values. But it is clear that reform is greatly needed to scale back the specter of an unelected, unaccountable state agency that has for years deprived residents and property owners in the Unorganized Territory of self-determination.

During last year’s legislative session, critics argued for a review process by experts to suggest meaningful reforms to land use and planning in the unorganized territories. The presiding officers of the Legislature along with the governor selected a thoughtful reform commission of individuals with diverse backgrounds, perspectives and views to address reforming LURC.

Individuals representing the Nature Conservancy, Maine guides and others had a seat at the table and a vocal presence during the hearings. While their discussions and deliberations were sometimes tense and adversarial, this group produced a consensus document complete with accompanying legislation that they all agreed upon. This accomplishment should not be minimized and not be easily disregarded by those uncomfortable with changing the status quo.

In an effort to minimize the hard work and victory of a unanimous report, some Democrats on the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee are undermining the work of the reform commission with misinformation designed to cater to their allies in the environmental lobby, and again disregard the citizens of the unorganized territory. These same citizens are facing an average unemployment much higher than the state average and make do with fewer services than their fellow citizens.

It is unfortunate that the important and thoughtful work done by the LURC Reform Commission would be dismissed by individuals who clamored for a review process last session.

Frankly, the people of the unorganized territory are tired of this type of obstructionism. They are tired of needing to travel to Augusta for permission to have alterations done to their homes in Aroostook County, tired of seeing job-creating industries chased out of their area by ever-increasing regulations and intricate comprehensive plans and tired of pleading with some unelected administrative agency to listen to them.

County government is the closest de facto form of local government the citizens of the unorganized territory have, and it makes sense to allow counties and their leadership a greater role in land use and planning. By expanding the membership of a statewide board to allow the majority of the board to be county commissioners or their designees, the citizens of the unorganized territories will have local, elected representation that understands the challenges facing their fellow citizens.

This reform commission was long overdue, but finally, with Republican majorities in the Maine Legislature, the people of Maine have a voice in Augusta that hears their cries for a more accountable government that is closer and more responsive to those it serves.

Sen. Rodney L. Whittemore, a Republican, represents Senate District 26 which includes Unorganized Territories in Central Somerset and Northwest Somerset County.

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