AUGUSTA, Maine — Members of a legislative committee on Thursday endorsed competing plans to reform the Land Use Regulation Commission.
Lawmakers on the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee were able to reach agreement on the vast majority of proposed LURC reforms. But lawmakers divided along party lines on whether counties should have the option of withdrawing from LURC — after meeting a lengthy list of stipulations — if local officials were unhappy with the state’s oversight.
The competing versions of the bill, LD 1798, will come back to the committee next week for a final review of the specific language before being sent to the full Legislature for consideration. Several legislators also were absent from Thursday’s meeting.
The key proposals that appear to have bipartisan support on the committee include:
• Expanding LURC from seven to nine members, with eight of the commissioners representing the eight counties with the most acreage in the Unorganized Territory. County commissioners will recommend designees whereas, under the current system, the governor nominates all seven members.
• Requiring all nominees to be reviewed by the legislative committee and approved by the Senate.
• Transferring more minor permitting responsibilities to counties and having the Maine Department of Environmental Protection handle all commercial wind power projects.
• Directing LURC staff to work with counties to develop regional planning and zoning plans.
• Relocating some LURC central office staff from Augusta to offices within or close to the Unorganized Territory.
The “county opt-out” remains a sticking point, however.
The majority report would prohibit counties from beginning the withdrawal process for at least five years after the reforms went into effect. Additionally, counties must adopt a county charter and comprehensive plan, establish planning and appeals boards, and demonstrate the financial feasibility to carry out responsibilities now handled by LURC.
The minority version would not allow counties to withdraw from LURC. Rep. Jeff McCabe, a Skowhegan Democrat who has been heavily involved in the LURC reform debate, said lawmakers were concerned allowing counties to withdraw could have financial impacts on county taxpayers as they attempt to cover the costs of providing the services on their own as well as on LURC’s finances.
The competing versions of the bill likely will spark debate on the House and Senate floor. Some environmental groups continue to suggest that the reforms — and particularly the withdrawal option — will weaken statewide standards and gradually dismantle LURC. The bill has the support of the LePage administration as well as the forest products industry.