October 17, 2018
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Public is right: There’s no reason to change Unorganized Territory development rule

George Danby | BDN
George Danby | BDN

A website devoted to changes that would allow more scattered development throughout Maine’s Unorganized Territories begins with this statement:

“Development that is farther away from public services can lead to difficulty providing those services, and scattered development may interfere with forestry, recreation, and habitat. Right now, new zones for subdivisions and businesses must locate within a mile of similar existing development, like a cluster of camps or an existing business.”

This makes sense. New development must be near existing development to maintain the character of the rural, mostly forested areas, which total more than 10 million acres.

However, the Land Use Planning Commission has proposed to change this so-called adjacency rule to allow development as far as 10 miles from existing stores, homes or other public services, what it has dubbed “retail hubs.” It claims this will allow “economic opportunity that won’t compromise our natural resources in changing economic times.” It would open up nearly 2 million acres for potential development.

The big unanswered question is what has changed? The suggestion from the commission is that opportunities for economic opportunities are being stifled by the current rules.

Land owners and developers have long complained that the commission is too strict and is hampering the growth of second homes and camps. But, there is little evidence that this is true.

More than 17,000 acres of land near Moosehead Lake was rezoned by the commission nine years years ago to make way for resorts and hundreds of homes. The landowners, Plum Creek Timber Co. and now Weyerhauser, have done no development on this land (conservation easements did move forward). At first the recession was blamed for depressing interest in second homes in the area. Now that the economy has recovered, the land still remains undeveloped.

This calls into question the commission’s argument that more opportunities for development are needed in the Unorganized Territory.

To date, the comments the commission has received from residents and property owners in the Unorganized Territories and those who recreate there, through a public hearing Wednesday and written comments, are overwhelmingly in opposition to the proposed change. Commenters wisely argue that sprawling development will ruin the character of the Maine woods, harm wildlife and degrade water quality. It simply makes sense to maintain the 1-mile rule to cluster development near existing communities, which would benefit from additional economic activity, commenters said.

“The Land Use Planning Commission should work to direct development toward existing towns and service centers, who could surely use the influx of people and/or monies into their communities,” Lynn Domek of Portland, whose family owns a camp in UT, wrote. “The LUPC proposed changes would only serve to hasten the destruction of what Mainers and visitors alike find attractive about our great state: our forests, wildlife, lakes, rivers, and outstanding natural beauty.”

“Maine’s priceless, irreplaceable, number one resource is unspoiled nature. To give it away to developers is just stupid,” Tim Murphy of Waldoboro wrote.

“Development expansion in Maine will certainly detract from what attracts people to the state. Don’t allow that appeal to be eroded by creeping land use easements,” wrote Cynthia and Dwight Ryan of California, who have owned property in Smithfield for more than 60 years.

The proposed change is opposed by groups ranging from the Appalachian Mountain Club to the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine.

Given these strong, reasonable sentiments, the Land Use Regulation Commission should abandon these misguided and unneeded rule changes. Doing so will also confirm that the commission works for Maine people and property owners and not a small number of landowners who are hoping to cash in.

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