A lot has been said about the Land Use Regulation Commission, or LURC, reform proposals going on this session of the 125th Maine Legislature, but unfortunately most of the discussion has focused on hypothetical scenarios designed to scare Mainers into opposing thoughtful and meaningful reforms.
Many of the groups parroting these scare tactics wrongly view northern Maine as one big public park when in fact the majority of land is private property. This undeniable aspect of the debate is often ignored and instead opposition groups want to discuss what could happen, as the editorial board of this newspaper chose to do.
It is said that journalism is about presenting facts to an audience, so let’s focus on what will happen when the balanced and well-researched reform package becomes law.
Let’s be very clear; this bill is about returning local representation and control to land use and planning in the Unorganized Territory, or UT. The membership of the new commission would increase to nine, with eight members coming from counties with the largest share of UT.
County commissioners would seek qualified and experienced candidates and give preference to selecting a resident of the UT when deciding who will represent their county. All candidates would be subject to a confirmation hearing with the committee of jurisdiction and a vote by the Maine Senate. This confirmation process ensures that members of the new commission will be both qualified and fully vetted by the Legislature prior to their confirmation.
A great deal of misinformation has been spread by those opposed to private property rights about this reform package, but all major existing rules, regulations and protections regarding natural resources will stay in place. The Maine Department of Environmental Protection will protect the resources of the region with its appropriate regulatory jurisdiction and framework and the existing comprehensive land use plan will still be in effect.
Contrary to what is being said by anti-private-property groups, the sky will not fall and northern Maine will not become a giant parking lot; quite the opposite, actually. Prospective zoning in high-growth areas will ensure a measured and balanced level of development where the local residents find appropriate.
Another aspect of this reform package that has faced numerous disingenuous attacks is the so-called county opt-out provision. Simply put, this provision serves as an insurance against heavy-handed government overreach that prompted this reform process.
After living under the distinctly un-American form of governance known as LURC, the residents of the UT now have a clear and rigorous process that allows them recourse if the new commission follows the same path as the current commission. Counties could not begin the opt-out process before September 1, 2017, roughly five years after these new reforms become law.
Counties need to present to the legislative committee of jurisdiction their proposal to leave the new commission, complete with documented failings of the new commission that prompted leaving, and then a vote by the Legislature would take place on the merits of the county’s proposal. The county then is subject to all existing state and federal laws regarding resource protection and must fulfill all the criteria of a municipality under state law. If a county decided not to follow state law, then the new commission would reestablish jurisdiction over the county.
It should be mentioned that in recent history, no other policy item has received such public input, scrutiny and widespread attention as the LURC issue has received. This effort included several meetings of a reform commission made up of county commissioners, landowners, UT residents, natural resource advocates and planners. Their work culminated in unanimous support for a reform package that served as a starting point for the Joint Standing Committee of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry.
In addition to the tremendous amount of work undertaken by the reform commission, several opposition coalitions worked tirelessly to scrutinize every aspect of this reform process and ultimately their main arguments against balanced reform amounted to little more than an irrational fear of the unknown and a philosophical disagreement with private property rights.
The opposition to this bill seems to think Portland should have just as much influence on what happens in the UT as the people who live and own the land there. I reject that notion and I believe this bill is an important step toward ensuring the people of the UT have their property rights returned to them.
Through all of the scrutiny, endless debate over hypothetical situations and philosophical disagreements, meaningful reform to the LURC problem is close and the people of the unorganized territory are closer to finally having accountable and responsive government.
Sen. Doug Thomas chairs the 125th Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Transportation. He represents Maine Senate District 27, which includes towns in Penobscot County, Piscataquis County and Somerset County.