Abolish LURC? Commission members say 'Not so fast'

Posted Wednesday, September 28, 2011 in Investigation

Abolish LURC? Commission members say 'Not so fast'

by Marian McCue

BANGOR -- They came not to bury LURC but to reform it – maybe.

While that assessment is premature, members of a newly appointed commission studying the fate of the controversial land use agency met in Bangor last week and showed that they may not fall in line behind a Republican plan to dismantle it.

Among the top priorities for Republican leaders in the recent Legislature was to abolish the Land Use Regulation Commission, which controls planning and development in Maine’s vast unorganized territory that includes much of Maine’s North Woods. They argued forcefully that the agency had overstepped its authority and that its duties should be delegated to the counties.

The Legislature balked at taking such a radical step so quickly, and instead set up the LURC Reform Commission to weigh the fate of the agency, and to consider the issue of planning and development in Maine’s vast territories.  The group met in Bangor last week, and is due to issue a report to the Legislature in January.

Republican Senate President Kevin Raye submitted the bill to kill LURC in the last session, and at a committee hearing on the bill he blasted LURC as a “colonial power” and criticized its four-year process of approving the Plum Creek development, which was eventually thrown out in court.

But Raye seemed to have softened his position last week when he opened the Reform Commission meeting, issuing instructions like a fifth grade teacher on the first day of school. He said he was open to several outcomes for the Commission that don’t include abolishing LURC. Raye also criticized those who had prejudged the outcome of the Commission’s work before it had even held a meeting. Ironically, these people include Governor Paul Lepage, who was quoted in August saying that LURC’s duties would be handed to the counties.

But in a five-hour meeting, with about 50 people attending, the commission members displayed wide ranging views on the future of LURC, and several were opposed to handing the duties over to the counties.

 “I thought I was coming here to see a kill LURC commission,” said a former LURC commissioner after the meeting. “I’m very pleased with what I’ve seen here.”

But the commission is just starting its lengthy process, which will continue with meetings and public listening sessions over the next two months in towns north of Bangor, so the outcome is uncertain. And several Reform Commission members are critical of the agency, saying it has tilted too far towards preservation at the expense of economic development. Some of the strongest criticism came from developers in the state’s unorganized territory, or members who represent companies involved in timber management.

Don White, the President of Prentiss and Carlisle, one of Maine’s largest timber services companies. waved a copy of LURC’s most recent comprehensive plan for the region, known as CLUP, and described it as “a blueprint for a National Park.”

White told panel members that there was “too much jammed under LURC’s umbrella, and that planning, policy and appeals should not all be under one roof.”

White was also vocal on these issues when the CLUP was revised in 2008, when he argued that the document was overly weighted towards preservation and not balanced development.

“This preservationist tone reveals a vision and goals more appropriate to a strategic plan for a state or national park than a land use plan for private property,” White wrote in comments on the draft CLUP.

Prentiss and Carlisle is also represented on the commission by Elbridge Cleaves, who was formerly a director of the company and is a retired forester from southern Aroostook county. Cleaves acknowledged the need for state “involvement” in the need for permitting and for large projects.

“It is easy to grant permits, but compliance and enforcement are more difficult,” said Cleaves.

The large timber management companies are also represented on the Commission by Sarah Medina, who is the land use director for the Seven Islands Company, which manages the Pingree lands. Medina said that LURC had a strong emphasis on protection, and “not everything is so special it needs to be protected. Some areas in the interior can be developed but we need the infrastructure to support it.”

Casting an eye towards the dark night sky

Several commission members noted the special nature of the north woods that forms much of  the unorganized territory. Judith Cooper East, a planner from Washington County, stressed that the undeveloped land provides “a darkness in the night sky that is unique to Maine and has statewide and national value.” Tom Rumpf of the Nature Conservancy also stressed that there is a statewide interest in this area.

And while there was a consensus on preserving the special aspects of Maine’s wildlands, the controversial issue of a national park in the north woods area loomed over the meeting. Two commissioners expressed concern over the plan, which is a bone of contention in northern Maine, where environmentalist Roxanne Quimby has bought many thousands of acres hoping to donate it to for a National Park.

Several commission members expressed concern over the practical impact of transferring LURC’s duties to the counties. Judith Cooper East, also noting that there are more residents in UT than before, said she was concerned about the cost to the counties of planning responsiblities, and their technical capacity for the work.

Gary Lamb, town manager of Greenville, didn’t mince words, calling the transfer of LURC duties to the counties “a stupid idea.”  The idea was floated of regional, rather than county planning agencies.

LURC has been embedded in controversy almost since its founding, when it was created by the Legislature after a five-year process from the time the bill was first introduced in 1967.

One of LURC’s legislative founding fathers is Horace Hildreth, Jr, who defended the agency at the same committee hearing where Raye called for its abolition. Hildreth also described the long painful process to create the agency in the late 1960s.

At that time, the paper companies were shifting their operations away from Maine and their huge holdings in the north woods became prime area for development.

 “The problem was that there were no laws to accommodate this looming bonanza. The large landowners owned the entire shore lines of hundreds of lakes and ponds, but there were no plumbing codes, no setback requirements, no minimum lot sizes, and no engineering requirements for access roads, no sewerage disposal requirements,” Hildreth wrote in prepared testimony.

“In short, the early developers whether they were paper companies or simply entrepreneurial land owners, could pretty much do as they wanted without regard to the long term effects upon lands and water bodies that would someday be a magnet to those 40 million of our neighbors looking for a place to escape for a week or two from the horrors of New Jersey.”

Reform Commission members don’t want to return to that unregulated era. And they agreed on a list of principles that include strong environmental protection, the encouragement of regional economic viability, and that residents and property owners will have significant input and impact. (See sidebar for full list.)

The group’s next meeting is scheduled for Oct. 6 at Solon Town Hall from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. with a listening session from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Further meetings are scheduled for Medway and Ashland, in southern Aroostook county.

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List of principles agreed to by the LURC Reform Commission

We agree:

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