Maine’s Unorganized Territories make up the largest intact forest east of the Rocky Mountains. Forty years ago, unchecked development was ruining the character of this region. The Land Use Regulation Commission was created to provide public oversight of land use activities. The half of Maine within the UT would be much worse today if not for the difficult decisions made by LURC.
Yet, last spring there were proposals to terminate LURC. Instead a panel was appointed to identify improvements. The recommendations by the LURC Reform Commission are a mixture of pleasant surprise and horrific misdirection.
On the positive side, the LURC Reform Commission recognized it would be a mistake to leave Maine’s extraordinary wildlands completely to the whims of the marketplace. On the other hand, despite an acknowledgment that there is value in keeping LURC, the panel’s recommendations could weaken the agency.
The LURC Reform Commission proposal would:
• Put local politicians in charge of a board with statewide responsibilities. County commissioners would appoint themselves or friends to a state board with no legislative vetting. How is it not a recipe for conflicts of interest to give developers an incentive to get their people elected as commissioners so they can approve their projects?
• Let counties drop out. Counties could opt-out of LURC if they took on land use planning, zoning and permitting. This is a fast track to having inconsistent standards in different areas. How does that help landowners with properties in different counties who want more, not less, consistency and predictability?
• Fragment planning and prospective zoning. Some planning and zoning would be done by LURC, some by regional planning commissions. How would eliminating the consistency of having one agency use uniform standards for planning and zoning throughout the UT not result in less fairness and greater inefficiency?
• Scatter permitting. Some permitting would stay with LURC. The Department of Environmental Protection would do permitting for large projects. Permit review for small projects would be eliminated or go to counties. How does eliminating one-stop permitting ensure consistency and fairness for applicants?
• Undermine the Comprehensive Land Use Plan. Many members of the LURC Reform panel are on record saying LURC’s 2010 CLUP should be dumped. The document represents compromise among many diverse stakeholders. How would overturning the CLUP respect the extensive public process that was undertaken over several years and the hundreds of Maine residents who participated?
• Revisit LURC’s “adjacency” guideline. The new country commissioner-controlled Land Use Planning Board would study dropping the adjacency criterion, which is a guideline to keep projects within a road mile of compatible development. This tool has been used for decades to guide development toward service center communities. How does dropping it avoid the costs of sprawl in the UT?
• Eliminate the “demonstrated need” test. Developers sometimes want to build even where there is a surplus of lots or no demand. How does terminating the demonstrated need criterion help local residents who can make a case there is no demand for a speculative project? How does it help developers with big dreams but thin financing avoid falling into bankruptcy because no one wants to buy what they are selling?
• Turn a planning board into a development agency. Language would be put into statute mandating that part of LURC’s mission is “to encourage and facilitate regional economic viability.” Already, residential development is allowed in 95 percent of the 10.4 million acres in the UT. Already, LURC has approved over $1 billion in commercial and residential development. LURC’s job is to guide development. How does requiring it to promote growth not duplicate existing development agencies?
• Increase the cost of land use oversight. The LURC Reform Commission’s recommendations taken together could cost Maine taxpayers a lot of money. The state will lose economies of scale, the counties will have to raise taxes and someone will have to figure out how to pay lawyers to defend lawsuits the counties can anticipate. In an era of economic recession, how can we afford the cost of breaking up LURC, especially when it will result in more inefficiency in government, less fairness to applicants, more inconsistency across the UT, and greater public confusion?
Controversy goes with being a regulatory agency. But until every person does everything right, there is a need for reasonable and fair rules to protect the common public interest in Maine’s extraordinary wildlands.
The changes contemplated by LURC Reform Commission are “solutions” in search of a problem. They will not improve Maine’s quality of place or the economic plight. On the contrary, they will put the extraordinary public values in Maine’s wildlands at enormous risk.
Jym St. Pierre has watched the workings of the Maine Land Use Regulation Commission both from the inside and the outside for over 35 years. He served 11 years on the LURC staff in the 1970s and 1980s, including an extended stint as acting director.