AUGUSTA, Maine — Supporters and opponents of the Land Use Regulation Commission turned out in droves Tuesday to either trash or sing the praises of the commission and its 40 years of influence over more than 10 million acres of Maine’s Unorganized Territory.

Depending on who was speaking, LURC either protects Maine’s North Woods from rampant and destructive sprawl or stands in the way of economic development that could curb a more than 10 percent average unemployment rate in the Unorganized Territory.

Six hours into testimony on a bill that would abolish LURC and hand its development review authority to county governments, the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee still had standing room only and several people still waiting to speak as the clock ticked past 7 p.m.

The committee went into Tuesday’s hearing with three bills and a legislative resolution on its plate, but two of the LURC-busting bills — those sponsored by Sen. Roger Sherman, R-Houlton, and Rep. Paul Davis, R-Sangerville — were abandoned. With those bills dead, most of the attention Tuesday was on LD 1534, “An Act to Reform the Land Use and Planning Authority in the Unorganized Territories,” which is sponsored by Rep. Jeffery Gifford, R-Lincoln.

Gifford’s bill would eliminate LURC by June 30, 2012, and create an advisory board to help with the transition of LURC’s functions to county governments. A lengthy amendment presented Tuesday would allow counties or groups of counties to devise their own land use planning, zoning and permitting procedures and bodies and funds the process with existing tax and fee revenues.

A legislative resolution also under consideration by the committee, “A Resolve to Improve the Predictability of Land Use Regulation in the Unorganized Territories,” would not dismantle LURC but would require the entity to create zoning in part of the Unorganized Territory and establish a permit-by-rule process that would allow quicker adjudication of development applications.

Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry, began Tuesday’s hearing with harsh words for LURC, beginning with a scathing critique of its handling of the Plum Creek development application and the development of a Comprehensive Land Use Plan.

“As a resident and legislator from rural Maine, I was appalled at the repugnant and humiliating nature of both processes,” said Raye in his presentation of LD 1534. “The fact is that the LURC model is not worthy of a democratic society … I submit that the best government is the government that is closest to the people. Passage of this legislation is one of the most important things this Legislature can do to help rural Maine move forward.”

Carlisle McLean, Gov. Paul LePage’s senior natural resources policy adviser, said LePage also supports doing away with LURC.

“Rural Maine is losing population, experiencing rapid economic decline and not being allowed the ability to thrive and prosper,” said McLean. “The people of the unorganized jurisdiction are asking for the opportunity to turn that reality around. After four decades of zoning, planning and permitting functions being centralized at the state level, for all 10 million acres of the jurisdiction, it is time to transition the authority to the people of the jurisdiction.”

Commissioners from several counties that include Unorganized Territory also spoke in favor of the bill, mostly on the grounds that it would increase local control of development decisions.

“We don’t see this as an issue between the political left and right; we see this as an issue between right and wrong,” said Chris Gardner, a Washington County commissioner. “The counties are more than well-prepared to handle LURC’s activities. If I thought that the land I live on and love would for one moment be harmed by this legislation, I would not support it.”

Abolishing LURC also has its opponents — including many of the more than 100 people in the hearing room Tuesday. Among them was Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, who was in the Legislature in the late 1960s when LURC was established.

“You don’t want to do what is suggested in these bills,” said Martin to committee members while suggesting that the existing LURC structure can be fixed. “I don’t want to see the power go to the counties. There are some counties I wouldn’t want to give more power for anything.”

Alec Giffen, former director of the Maine Forest Service and former LURC director, said Maine’s North Woods would be rough shape if not for LURC, citing an incident years ago when a logging operation sent an ecologically devastating silt plume through 100 miles of waterways until LURC intervened.

“We’ve really cleaned things up in our North Woods and LURC is in part responsible for that,” said Giffen, who opposed abolishing LURC but said the organization’s structure and process could be improved.

“I think we need to keep LURC in order to keep a statewide perspective,” said Charles O’Brien of Jackman, a small-business owner and former LURC member. “If we lose the statewide perspective then we’re going to have a hodgepodge of regulations being applied differently in different counties. I think we’d be better off to fix what’s broken with LURC.”

The Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee has scheduled a work session on the LURC bills for 1 p.m. Thursday.


Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.