As the legislative session shifts into high gear, the debates become less academic. It’s no longer general ideas and vague improvements that are on the table; it’s real, often substantive changes. Once those changes become state law, it’s difficult to undo them.
The initiative to improve the way the Land Use Regulation Commission functions was, at the conceptual level, sound. Rural economies have changed in the years since LURC was formed, mostly for the worse. The large tracts of forested land, once held by a handful of paper companies with long ties to Maine, are now sold and resold on a global market.
And increasingly, recreational development is seen as the best-case scenario for rural regions decimated by declines in employment in resource-based businesses.
But the bill to transform LURC that has won committee approval contains some fatal flaws. The eight counties that have the largest amount of Unorganized Territory could see development that permanently degrades the environment and causes long-term harm to communities. Groups such as GrowSmart Maine, the Maine Association of Planners, the Natural Resources Council of Maine and others are opposing the majority bill because of its flaws.
Chief among them is the provision that would allow any of the eight counties with large amounts of land under LURC jurisdiction to opt out. An improvement from an earlier version is the requirement that a county wait five years after the new law goes into effect before seeking to withdraw. The counties that drop out also must adopt charters, establish planning and appeals boards and demonstrate the financial ability to manage the reviews LURC often conducts.
But the ability to opt out of LURC remains a problem.
There is no need to conjure up a hypothetical to illustrate the risk. The Plum Creek development in the Moosehead Lake Region is a perfect example. A sparsely populated county with little in the way of professional government would not be able to evaluate a project that included two large resorts, 950-house lots and all the associated roads, wells and septic systems.
If two or three counties opted-out of LURC, what would follow is clear: those counties would seen as “easy” by developers — ripe for exploitation. Developers could promise donations to fire departments or investments in schools in tacit exchange for approving projects that adversely impact lakes, rivers, forests and wildlife that are, in fact, statewide resources.
Bringing more local voices to LURC would be a welcome change. The majority bill would expand the commission from seven to nine members, with eight members living in the eight counties with the most land under LURC jurisdiction. This, too, is risky. Commissioners or their designees could act in their self-interest or trade votes to win project approval.
The bottom line is that changing LURC to bring more local control must not come at the loss of a statewide perspective. And counties that opt-out, believing residents will be able to build camps with less red tape and that they will be more appealing to larger resource-based and recreational businesses, will not find smooth sailing. It will just be another set of problems they face.
On the surface, a compromise between the majority and minority versions appears to be close. Legislative leaders ought to step up and make it happen.