Venturing: Fix LURC, don't throw it out

Posted Wednesday, June 22, 2011 in Opinion

Venturing: Fix LURC, don't throw it out

Moosehead Lake region, a pristine wilderness overseen by LURC

by David D. Platt

Now don't get me wrong: Paul LePage is the worst governor Maine has had since Jim Longley, and at least Jim was a nice guy who always remembered your name (he'd been an insurance salesman, after all). LePage, lacking Longley's charm and having about the same level of political acumen, has made lots of noise while accomplishing practically nothing since taking office.

So it may surprise you to hear something positive from me about LePage, and even this little ray of light was probably unintended on the governor's part. I'm referring to the effort by the LePage administration and its allies in the Legislature to do away with the Land Use Regulation Commission (LURC). The idea –­ pretty chuckleheaded at first glance ­ – was to abolish the commission and turn its duties over to county commissioners who would (ha!) administer Maine's environmental laws in the vast Unorganized Territory.

That's the idea being advanced by the governor and his friends. Don't laugh; they're serious. But before you reject it out of hand, give some thought to history, time and change.

LURC was born in the 1970s, not long after the publication of two reports on the paper industry in Maine. Sponsored by Ralph Nader and researched and written by Dick Spencer and Will Osborn, the reports made it clear that paper companies and other large landowners had run roughshod over Maine's tax system and its environment; northern Maine was a sitting duck for all kinds of development that could take place if the companies decided to sell.

Taxes on timberland were artificially low; there was no way to recover back taxes if land once valued solely for its timber was converted into lakefront house lots. Nor was there significant control over what owners did with their land in Unorganized townships. Gravel pits? Go ahead and dig. Deer yards? Cut 'em down. Subdivisions? Why not?

There was a lot at stake, and for once the Legislature stepped up to the plate. In a short span of time two laws were passed, signed and went into effect: the Tree Growth Tax, while codifying the relatively low tax rates on timberland, at least made it possible for the state to collect back taxes from owners who became developers; and the Land Use Regulation Commission, in effect a planning and zoning board for the Unorganized Territory, came into being. LURC was empowered to draw up and adopt a comprehensive plan for 10 million acres. These were major initiatives, seriously debated and supported by legislators of both parties from southern and northern Maine.

There was some horse-trading (low timber taxes and a predictable regulatory environment come to mind) but the net effect was a new layer of protection for natural values in the wildest part of New England.

That was then. Now we've lived with LURC for almost 40 years, and lots of things have changed. The paper companies, their large land ownerships, their mills and their jobs are largely gone. Investors in timberland today tend to be entities like pension funds and other non-industrial landowners with different time horizons and (one hopes) a less predatory interest in land and what it might be used for. Public interest in the outdoors and in protecting wild places remains high. The 10,000 miles of roads landowners built after they were told to take their logs out of the state's rivers (that's another story) have opened the North Woods to the general public as never before. The coastal islands that come under LURC jurisdiction (Monhegan, Matinicus and Criehaven plus numerous uninhabited ones) have gained new residents and are subject to new pressures. Plum Creek, the outfit that wants to develop land northwest of Moosehead Lake, might disagree, but high gas prices and changing vacation lifestyles may be turning Americans' interest away from second homes. Nationally and in Maine, the population is aging, whatever that means. After years of effort by nonprofit groups and private individuals, more of northern Maine is publicly owned or protected by easements than in 1970.

LePage and his friends want us to think LURC brought about the demise of all those high-paying paper-company jobs, and ­ that's simply not true. But what is true is that circumstances have changed, and the old one-size-fits-all LURC model may no longer be right for Maine. I know that regulations intended for paper companies don't work on islands, and I know that rules designed to prevent the liquidation of forests or even to protect Maine's deer herd have been ineffective. I know LURC's process can be endless, bureaucratic, expensive and unfair.

The LePage proposal to abolish LURC was heavy-handed and ill-informed, and the current Legislature saw that when it referred the matter to a study committee that will report back next year. But if the old proposal ­ or whatever comes out of the study committee ­ prompts a healthy discussion of how best to protect Maine's North Woods, then we've gained something. Maine is a different place than it was in 1970; if LURC is no longer working, let's fix it. Paul LePage and the Republicans are making a hash of many things, but give them credit for opening up a discussion we've needed to have for years.

David D. Platt covered the Maine Legislature in the 1970s, reported on LURC for the Bangor Daily News in the 1980s, and edited the old Maine Times and Working Waterfront.

blog comments powered by Disqus