One of the skirmishes in the war against government regulation that followed Gov. Paul LePage’s election was the campaign to kill the Land Use Regulation Commission. Cooler heads since have prevailed, and the task force formed to study the role of the commission — most of the members of which had been proponents of eliminating it — have softened their views and now want to revamp the oversight body.
The task force worked hard to improve LURC. Their efforts, now in the form of recommendations to be considered by the Legislature, largely are reasonable in achieving a smoother, faster review process and more local accountability. But legislators, who represent more divergent views than those on the task force, should not hesitate to tweak those recommendations.
The new LURC would see a change in membership, growing from seven to nine members. Six of the nine members would be county commissioners of the six counties with large tracts of land in the unorganized territories. The county commissioners also, under the recommended change, could designate someone to serve in their place.
The idea is to ensure that more local knowledge of development history, resource inventory and economic opportunity is part of LURC’s deliberation process. This should be welcomed, but a fear is that county commissioners or their designates will trade votes to bring projects to their regions. Legislators may consider adding stricter definitions of conflict of interest in such deliberations, so a county commissioner acting as a LURC commissioner doesn’t vote on a development project his cousin is proposing.
A coalition of conservation groups rightly suggests that adding county commissioners to the board could “result in the injection of huge financial contributions into county commissioner elections,” and notes these county officials probably do not have experience in land use planning.
The coalition proposes instead to allow county commissioners to propose three possible candidates to the governor who then nominates one; that candidate would need legislative confirmation. This is a reasonable compromise, retaining local ties while also adding broader public accountability.
One key component of the task force’s compromise was to allow counties to withdraw from LURC jurisdiction. This simply is unworkable. It is akin to allowing states to opt out of federal Environmental Protection Agency jurisdiction. It could create a patchwork quilt of development across the state’s unorganized territories, resulting in environmental degradation that in turn could permanently harm some regions’ economic prospects.
Other recommendations, such as moving the review of some smaller development projects off LURC’s plate and onto local bodies, and letting the Department of Environmental Protection take up wind power projects, are sensible in that they strengthen LURC’s core mission. But as is often the case, the devil is in the details. Legislators must work to ensure these and other changes aren’t weakening oversight of development, but rather creating a more user-friendly and timely review process.
Like the police officer who parks his cruiser at the edge of town waiting for drivers to put their vehicles into overdrive, LURC stands as the unpopular gatekeeper over the unorganized territories. Without a statewide perspective on development of these 10.5 million acres, the resources that are too large to belong to any one owner, corporate or individual, could be abused or lost. LURC can be improved, but it should not be rebuilt with fatal flaws.