Final LURC proposal finds common ground, concern

Posted Wednesday, December 21, 2011 in News

Final LURC proposal finds common ground, concern

AUGUSTA – When the LURC Reform Commission was established last spring by the Maine Legislature, few expected an outcome that satisfied extreme and diverse views of Mainers toward land use planning in Maine’s unorganized territories. The LURC Reform Commission’s final report, made public this week, was unanimous, containing an advisory report and set of recommendations that reforms the 40-year-old Land Use Regulation Commission (LURC) statutes. For the most part, most Mainers feel that the plan struck a balance between local control over resources and protection of the environment.

“The Reform Commission focused on what we all agreed on from day one, and that commitment to find common ground is reflected in our final report,” said Bill Beardsley, LURC Reform Commission chair. “Individually, each of us would have worded things differently. Yet considered in its entirety, we all agree that the outcome is fair, considerate and practical.

“We have crafted a set of recommendations that retain a statewide board while assuring citizen and local input,” Beardsley continued. “We have renewed the state’s broad commitment to conservation of our natural resources while codifying respect for private property and a commitment to economic vitality for Maine’s most rural counties. These are core values that we believe are shared throughout the unorganized territories and across Maine.”

Highlights of the Reform Commission’s recommendations include:

 The LURC Reform Commission was formed through a resolution passed by the 125th Maine Legislature to make recommendations on how to carry out land use planning, zoning and permitting in the 10.4 million acres of unorganized towns and plantations of Maine known as the unorganized territories (UT).

The 13-member commission, appointed jointly by Gov. Paul LePage, Senate President Kevin Raye and House Speaker Robert Nutting, held six meetings, including public listening sessions, at various locations in northern, central, eastern and western Maine. The Reform Commission was required to complete its work by Dec. 15 and submit its final report and recommendations no later than Jan. 4, 2012.

The final report and recommendations have been presented to the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. The ACF Committee will address the findings and recommendations as it chooses.

Not everyone is quite as enthusiastic.

Planners, conservationists, and citizens throughout Maine are concerned about the impact of proposed changes to Maine’s Land Use Regulation Commission (LURC) on Maine’s North Woods, and are urging the Legislature to examine the proposal carefully and think long and hard about the importance of Maine’s signature natural resource.

The concerns expressed by these groups include environmental concerns, loss of predictable processes in planning, concerns about the new governmental body that will govern LURC, and about a county 'opt-out' provision.

“We are pleased that the LURC Reform Committee backed away from abolishing LURC, but a number of the provisions of their proposal could result in the same outcome depending on how the details are worked out,” says Cathy Johnson, North Woods project director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “The full impact of the LURC Reform Committee’s proposals has not yet been evaluated. Implementing the recommendations could have very serious and problematic unintended consequences.”

“Drastically changing the membership of the Commission and allowing planning and permitting to be taken over by other entities could lead to a loss of the character of the North Woods that has been cherished by Mainers and visitors for generations,” added Jenn Gray, of Maine Audubon.

Sean Mahoney of the Conservation Law Foundation said: “Allowing county commissioners to appoint themselves as LURC commissioners, as the LURC Reform Committee has proposed, without review through the normal process of gubernatorial nomination, legislative committee hearing, and Senate confirmation, would undercut LURC’s ability to be responsive to statewide perspective and legal commitment."

“No other Maine State regulatory board has members elected by local constituencies because of inevitable conflicts between pressures to respond to local politics and the legal duty of LURC commissioners to make decisions based exclusively on the law and facts in a legal record,” added former Maine Deputy Attorney General Jeff Pidot.

“The ‘county drop-out’ proposal would allow counties to withdraw from the currently unified system that should consistently apply to the entire unorganized territories,” says Bryan Wentzell of the Appalachian Mountain Club. “Such a ‘drop-out’ could result in increased unpredictability for applicants, inequity for landowners, and confusion for the public when divergent standards emerge.”

“We are surprised and troubled that the Administration already has prepared draft legislation, given that the reform commission explicitly decided not to prepare legislation,” said Johnson. “The reform commission concluded that drafting a bill would be the job of the Legislature.  We support that conclusion and note that the draft bill released today is not consistent with the commission’s work.  We urge lawmakers to reserve the right to consider the reform commission’s proposals and make their own decisions about what changes make sense in Maine’s laws.”

Johnson also expressed concern about the government process, such as commissioners appointing themselves and counties opting out.  Current law requires municipalities to have in place zoning and rules which provide an equivalent level of natural, recreational, and historic resource protection as that provided under LURC.

“Maine’s North Woods is a region of statewide significance because it is the anchor of our forest products and tourism economies and our natural outdoors heritage,” says Nancy Smith of Growsmart Maine. “The Legislature should ensure that any LURC reform proposal creates a more efficient and effective state agency that continues to provide a statewide approach, which is sensitive to local and regional needs, while representing the interests of all Maine people.”

The LURC Reform Commission was chaired by Beardsley, with Sarah Medina of Dixmont as vice-chair.

The other members include:

The complete LURC Reform Commission final recommendations document can be found here: http://maine.gov/doc/lurcreformcommission/index.shtml

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