AUGUSTA, Maine — The reconfigured state panel charged with overseeing zoning and development on Maine’s 10.4 million acres of Unorganized Territory is running into trouble filling vacancies less than a year after it started operating.
The Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee in recent weeks has rejected two of three people nominated to the reformulated Land Use Planning Commission — the first nominees to the reworked board. And that has some members of the Legislature interested in changing the laws that govern nominations to the nine-member commission, which started meeting last year.
“It’s clear to me that we need to clarify the process for the counties,” said Rep. Jeff McCabe of Skowhegan, the assistant Democratic leader in the House who served on the agriculture committee during the last Legislature. “I think the counties are looking at us saying, ‘We went through the process. Now what?’”
The Land Use Planning Commission last year replaced the former Land Use Regulation Commission after a specially formed task force spent months studying LURC and recommended replacing the seven-member body with a panel with greater representation from the counties that make up the state’s Unorganized Territory.
Maine’s Unorganized Territory makes up about half the state’s land area.
Under legislation that became law last year, eight of the nine members of LUPC are to be nominated by commissioners from the eight counties that have the most Unorganized Territory within their borders. The governor makes one nomination to the board.
The three nominations considered earlier this month by the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee were the first nominations sent to the Legislature by county commissioners. The nominees came from Aroostook, Piscataquis and Somerset counties.
Two of the three nominees, the Aroostook and Somerset nominees, were county commissioners. And advocates from the Natural Resources Council of Maine raised questions about the Piscataquis County nominee, Duane Lander, at his confirmation hearing. The group cited minutes from county commissioner meetings showing commissioners had agreed last year to nominate one representative, then later rescinded the nomination after state Sen. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley, recommended they reopen the LUPC nomination process.
The Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee accepted Aroostook County Commissioner Paul Underwood in a 9-3 vote. Committee members voted 11-2 to reject Somerset County Commissioner Lloyd Trafton. The committee rejected Lander, from Piscataquis County, in a 7-6 vote after an hours-long hearing.
“They didn’t give me any reasons at that time why it didn’t go through,” said Trafton. “From our point of view, we thought we were meeting the criteria that we were supposed to, so we don’t know at this point what’s wrong.”
Rep. Russell Black, R-Wilton, said he’s supportive of having more representation from the Unorganized Territory on the Land Use Planning Commission. But he’s concerned the commission could end up a board of county commissioners. Legislation to hand over LURC’s responsibilities to county commissioners was rejected by lawmakers in 2011 in favor of the study commission.
“It looks to me like we’re basically loading up the LURC board with county commissioners, and that’s what I was afraid of,” he said. “I want, and a lot of legislators want, a wide range of expertise. We’re getting away from individuals who have any expertise in land planning or zoning, which we really need on that board.”
One Republican member of the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee, Sen. Roger Sherman of Houlton, said he has developing legislation to tighten the requirements for nominees to the commission and more clearly spell out the nomination process. In his legislation, Sherman said he hopes to lay out specific qualifications county commissioners should consider in nominating LUPC members.
“The idea is to send the message to county commissioners,” Sherman said, “‘You’d better go through the process. You’d better look at some folks who have some expertise in water, forestry.’”
Current state law requires county commissioners nominate a county resident who lives in the Unorganized Territory, works in it, or previously spent at least five years living or working in the territory. If county commissioners nominate one of their own, the selected commissioner can’t vote on his or her own nomination.
The legislation, Sherman said, would also lay out specific requirements for county commissioners to follow in advertising a LUPC opening to make sure the word gets out broadly. It would also allow county commissioners to go beyond the boundaries of their county to find a candidate with the desired expertise.
“This is new to us all, and we’re sort of in flux,” Sherman said.
His legislation would have to be approved by legislative leadership before it goes forward since it would be coming after the start-of-the-session deadline for most bills.
Meanwhile, the Land Use Planning Commission might have two vacancies go unfilled in the coming months since lawmakers have rejected the county nominees. State law allows the governor to make a nomination in cases where a county doesn’t within 90 business days of a vacancy.