AUGUSTA, Maine — The fate of the Land Use Regulation Commission remained unclear Tuesday as lawmakers struggled to reach a compromise on whether to abolish or reform an agency that oversees permitting and development on more than 10 million acres in Maine.
Lawmakers and groups closely following several bills dealing with LURC walked away from a short and tense work session on Tuesday more confused than when they went in.
While the committee’s Republican Senate chairman insisted he was trying to give the issue a more thorough airing, Democrats suggested the Legislature’s GOP leadership was still trying to abolish LURC — albeit through a less-direct route — despite misgivings on both sides of the political aisle.
“There is something lurking behind the scenes,” said Rep. Peter Kent, D-Woolwich.
LURC has for years been a popular target of criticism by some landowners who accuse the agency of slowing economic development in the Unorganized Territory. LURC’s critics see this session as their best chance to make major changes or even eliminate the agency with Republicans in control of both the State House and the governor’s office.
The agency’s defenders, meanwhile, point to the fact that very few projects are rejected by LURC and insist the commission plays a crucial role in ensuring development does not spoil the natural beauty that makes Maine unique.
On Tuesday, the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee convened to continue discussing two measures. The first, more modest proposal, LD 819, would establish a study commission to recommend ways to improve LURC.
The second bill, LD 1534, would allow counties to take over many of the planning, zoning and permitting decisions now handled by LURC. The Maine Department of Environmental Protection also would assume responsibility for other issues now handled by LURC, such as applications for residential subdivisions with more than 15 lots.
The committee voted along party lines to reject the study commission, proposed by Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan.
The meeting dissolved into confusion, however, when Sen. Roger Sherman, the Senate co-chairman, moved to adjourn the meeting and said the committee would return on Wednesday to discuss a proposal for a “transition team” that would examine the issue over the summer.
“We’re not going to rush this through,” Sherman said. “Nothing is being hidden. We are going to be as open as we can.”
But Democrats raised concerns that the creation of a “transition team” assumes that LURC has been disbanded — something that they believe the majority of the committee did not support, at least as of last week. They also questioned whether the team would be stacked by LURC opponents, including LePage administration officials.
“When it’s called a transition team, it is pretty clear what the outcome is going to be,” McCabe said afterward. “What we wanted is a study group.”
Democrats suggested that pressure was being applied to Sherman from the Republican leadership because Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry, and Gov. Paul LePage are strong supporters of the bill.
But Rep. Jeffrey Timberlake, R-Turner, said he and other House Republicans on the committee support allowing a study group to consider all options rather than begin work with a pre-determined outcome of ending LURC.
“We want to say, ‘Let’s take our time and let’s not rush this thing,’” Timberlake told several Democratic lawmakers after Tuesday’s meeting.