LURC reform will bring a sea change to planning, zoning and permitting in the state’s Unorganized Territory. Good reforms will give our natural resource economy a deserved higher standing, and there’s an intent the new, larger Land Use Planning Commission will be made up of people with closer ties to the UT.
On balance, appropriate and necessary conservation and protection of publicly owned waters, wildlife, special habitats and places will be retained.
There are always those who reject sound standards to guide harmonious development anywhere — downtown or on pristine wildland lakes — out of their own adherence to extreme principles, or from their interest in profits as Realtors or developers. But by all measures, Maine people are standing for a balanced future as reform now goes forward in the UT.
But wrong things could be done for what is intended to be right reasons. Counties will be allowed to leave LURC. Six of nine positions on the new commission will be given to county commissioners from counties containing large portions of unorganized areas, intending to bring commission governance closer to the UT.
Four wrongs could be done.
County commissioners are elected by the large number of votes in downtown cities and towns. The votes from small rural communities and remote places will have less impact on those who will tell us how our lands will be used in the future. We can’t affect how downtowns will be developed, but they will decide how our regions are developed. Governance is being taken farther away from the UT, not moved closer to it.
The delicate and difficult task of planning and zoning, in which private property rights must be carefully balanced with community and public interests, will be shifted into the hands of people who have political skills, without any requirement whatsoever that they be experienced or qualified to apply sound principles of development planning, or to bring natural resource management considerations or natural resource-based economic development. A sea change needs a competent crew with experience and qualifications to handle a ship in demanding waters.
Unlike every other form of Maine governance, from town meeting to state government, county commissioners are not accountable or responsible to any elected legislative body. They are themselves elected, but in the county there’s no legislature or town meeting to pass ordinances or raise taxes. To be granted the authority to erect rules and standards that will have profound effects on how private property is to be used, without being required to be continually accountable to the people affected, grants extraordinary unchecked power.
Our elected Legislature currently reviews and confirms LURC commission appointments. There are standards for appointees in place; there should be more, including residence in the UT. County commissioners should be required to continue to be accountable to our elected legislature for public review and confirmation of nominations if they are to be granted this level of power over lives and property.
Finally and most seriously, Section 13 of the LURC Reform legislation (LD 1798) proposes to let commissioners choose for their counties to leave LUPC, and in the process abolish the constitutionally guaranteed home rule rights of towns and plantations, preventing communities from ever choosing to stand on their own to govern their own land-use affairs. The legislation takes away these community rights and, obscurely buried within it, proposes an unprecedented action in Maine: grant home rule standing to counties. And it does so without establishing any elected legislative body to which county commissioners must be responsible.
We have eight towns and 32 plantations too small to establish their own local planning and appeal boards that have been satisfied to stay in LURC jurisdiction for 40 years. This unprecedented assignment of extreme unchecked and unbalanced power to a few county commissioners to take away our rights is contrary to all our principles of representative government.
Our small LURC towns and plantations are facing hard choices because of this proposed LURC reform and most aren’t even aware of it.
The county “opt-out” in Section 13 of LD 1798 should be eliminated and all members of the future LURC must be qualified and publicly reviewed for appointment by our Legislature.
D. Gordon Mott is a forester who lives in Lakeville, an unorganized territory. He has worked with LURC for 30 years on behalf of landowners.