June 23, 2018
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LURC reform: too risky, too safe or just right?

By Ken Lamond, Special to the BDN

The Bangor Daily News has it wrong again on the issue of LURC reform. In the recent editorial titled “LURC change too risky,” the BDN continues to suggest a county role in planning and permitting that is beyond what is proposed in the current LURC reform effort. LD 1798 is a bill moving through the legislative process to reform the Land Use Regulation Commission.

In June, I responded to a BDN editorial with: “Conservation and the GOP: another view.”

In that column I addressed a number of points including the role of a county in the area of planning and permitting. It is as true today as it was in June that a county would only review projects that did not trigger Maine’s site law.

Under the current proposal, county review of smaller residential and commercial proposals would only occur if a county successfully completes the “opt out process.” In five years a county can “opt out” of the Land Use Planning Commission jurisdiction if it can meet a near impossible set of conditions. In the unlikely event of a “county opt out,” it would never review a project like the Plum Creek proposal in the Greenville area. A project of that size and scope would trigger Maine’s site law and would require a thorough review by the Department of Environmental Protection.

LURC reform is intended to improve local input and achieve a balance of economic development and conservation. Many landowners and residents of the unorganized areas of Maine believe LURC has become unresponsive to their needs. The current LURC reform effort will offer more local input by including county commissioners, or their appointees, on the new Land Use Planning Commission.

In addition, the LUPC will begin to move the function of planning and permitting for the unorganized areas of Maine out of Augusta and closer to its landowner and resident constituents. Everyone on the LURC Reform Commission agreed that these are two important changes to the current system.

The key to balancing economic development and conservation will be zoning. Currently less that 1 percent of the unorganized areas of Maine is zoned for development. Think about that — 10 million acres of rural Maine are essentially off limits to economic development.

In organized towns 80 percent to 90 percent of the land area is zoned for some type of development. There is generally less area for commercial development, more for residential or limited residential development. It is important to understand that zoning that allows development does not mean the entire area could be developed.

Once again, from my June column: development in LURC jurisdiction is going to occur mostly on the fringes. That is where the services exist. That is where the market is. There are millions of acres in conservation easements in LURC jurisdiction. Working forests will never be developed. There are access restrictions, market restrictions and site restrictions

that would limit development in the UT.

In addition, there are landowners in the UT whose long-term ownership objectives are not centered on development. Nobody is suggesting unfettered development in northern Maine. We need to improve on the 1 percent of the jurisdiction available for economic development.

The county opt-out provision included in the LURC Reform Commission recommendation to the Legislature has been the subject of much discussion.

Too risky? In my view, this fall-back provision would not be necessary if the new Land Use Planning Commission was compelled to provide an improved opportunity for economic development in the UT. There are no provisions in the bill that dictate that expectation.

Too safe? I support this reform effort, LD 1798, including the county opt-out provision, because I believe rural Maine communities through their county commissioners will succeed in balancing economic development and conservation. No county will need to opt out if it individually can assess its needs and, through the new LUPC, collectively agree on improving opportunity while maintaining the rural character of the region.

It is time for the UT to be managed a bit less for southern Maine and southern New England, and a bit more for residents and landowners in rural Maine. Just right.

Ken Lamond is a licensed Maine forester and co-owner of Family Forestry in Brewer.

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