Lawmakers make some progress on LURC reform bill

Posted Feb. 23, 2012, at 7:07 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Members of a legislative committee began vetting a list of proposed reforms to the Land Use Regulation Commission on Thursday but opted to delay until next week debate on the most contentious issue surrounding the agency.

A bill pending before lawmakers would restructure LURC in order to address criticisms leveled against an agency that oversees planning, zoning and permitting on more than 10 million acres in Maine.

Lawmakers on the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee largely appeared comfortable with recommendations to increase the size of the commission from seven to nine members and to change the way commission members are chosen.

LD 1798 proposes replacing the current process wherein the governor nominates commission members with a new process in which county commissioners or their designees would fill six of the nine LURC seats. Those seats would be reserved for representatives of the six counties with the most acreage in the Unorganized Territory.

Committee members were inclined Thursday to expand the number of county representatives to eight, meaning the governor would only be responsible for nominating one person to the commission. Additionally, lawmakers from both parties appeared to support requiring all nine nominees to receive legislative approval.

Other LURC reforms that generated little to no debate include:

  1. Delegating review of commercial wind power projects to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.
  2. Handing over enforcement of forestry regulations to the Maine Forest Service.
  3. Directing LURC staff to work with counties to develop regional planning and zoning plans.
  4. Relocating some LURC central office staff from Augusta to offices within or close to the Unorganized Territory.

It was clear Thursday, however, that committee members remain deeply divided over a proposal to allow counties to withdraw or “opt out” of LURC in the future.

In order to withdraw, counties would have to adopt a county charter and comprehensive plan, establish planning and appeals boards, and demonstrate the financial feasibility to carry out the permitting and planning responsibilities handled by LURC.

But both Republican and Democratic lawmakers have suggested that allowing counties to withdraw from LURC would undermine the agency and potentially lead to different rules in different counties.

Rep. Karen Foster, R-Augusta, proposed not allowing counties to begin the withdrawal process for at least five years after the LURC reforms are enacted. That proposal, which was part of a package of amendments, garnered support from several lawmakers.

“I like this proposal because it gives LURC a chance to work,” said Rep. Jeffrey Timberlake, R-Turner.

But Rep. Russell Black, R-Wilton, said he could not support an “opt out” clause. And Sen. Elizabeth Schneider, D-Orono, was among several Democrats who said they needed additional time to consider several of the proposed reforms.

“None of these for me are set in stone, and I want people to understand that,” Schneider said. “But I really have a problem with the opt-out [clause] completely.”

The committee is scheduled to resume discussions on the LURC reforms at 1 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 28, and may continue working on the bill on March 1.

Reporter Kevin Miller covered the hearing by listening to it through the Legislature’s online broadcast.

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