Over the past two years, much has been written and said about reform of the Land Use Regulation Commission, which oversees the planning, zoning and regulation of the unorganized territories and some communities in Maine.
Last year the Legislature formed a study group composed of residents, landowners, the Department of Conservation, county officials and conservation interests to produce
reform recommendations. Their recommendations have been widely praised as sound and a move in the right direction.
Much of the negative discussion about LURC reform is about potential impacts and changes to development patterns and the complexion of much of northern Maine. However, this debate misses the essential and pivotal driver of the move to reform LURC. The primary drive is local representation and oversight by elected officials.
Since its inception, LURC has been governed by a commission of gubernatorial appointees that were in many ways unanswerable to the residents of the LURC jurisdiction. Maine has a long tradition of local governance and control. The LURC jurisdiction is unique in that its
planning and zoning are subject to the input of all citizens, regardless of the location of their residence.
It is analogous to citizens of Bangor having equal standing to citizens of Augusta for matters of Augusta planning and zoning. While continuing the tradition of a central body with broad input from around the state, the proposed reforms require that representatives from the counties that contain the land in the jurisdiction serve on the commission. These representatives will be answerable to the residents of the jurisdiction and thus provide a critical and necessary level of representation of their interests.
The proposed reforms also provide a mechanism for counties to “opt out” of LURC and take on planning, zoning and regulation on their own. This is the current right of any deorganized town or plantation in the jurisdiction that currently has LURC perform these tasks for them.
In order for a county to qualify for this option, it must meet a number of rigorous requirements, prove that LURC was failing to provide adequate service and gain legislative approval. If this approval was granted but the county failed to perform its duties properly, LURC would have the right to pull the county back into its jurisdiction.
These and other proposed changes have been characterized as dangerous and an invitation to rampant exploitation and development. This is simply not the case; the residents and landowners in the jurisdiction are interested in economic development, but understand that in order to prosper, we need to build upon the area’s strength of large stretches of undeveloped working forest that provide jobs, wood supply for our mills and vast recreation and tourism opportunities.
In addition, the lack of public infrastructure and rights of way in much of the jurisdiction has, and will continue to be, a significant brake on changes in land use. It is important to bear in mind that once one gets a mile from a public road or organized town, the average rate of development in the unorganized territory has been one dwelling per 20,000-acre township per decade, or ten per century. That is hardly likely to change anytime soon, especially with the large fraction of land that is closed to development due to conservation easements.
Intelligent people can and should discuss the merits of different policies and planning decisions for the unorganized territories of northern Maine, and there is much common ground on how to move forward. What is needed is more local representation on the powerful body that provides these services to that region.
I believe that we can all agree that local representation is in the spirit of our democracy and one of the foundations of Maine governance. That is why I support the sound and reasonable reforms that are before the Legislature.
Peter Triandafillou is vice president of the woodlands division of Huber Resources Corp. He works in Old Town.