LURC proposed changes may open the door to developers

Groups are concerned about the future of the North Woods

BY RAMONA DU HOUX

December 16th, 2011 

“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,” said Jenn Gray, of Maine Audubon.

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.

“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,” said 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.”

The report does not require legislative approval of the commissioner appointments and does not specify what the criteria will be to allow counties to opt-out of LURC.

“While we are pleased to see that the board abandoned the extreme proposal to abolish LURC, we have concerns about the provisions for appointing commissioners and a new opt-out provision for counties,” said Rep. Jeff McCabe, the lead Democrat on the Agriculture Committee. “This is an area where Democrats hope to make changes to the commission recommendations.”

The way in which commissioners will be appointed has worried others.

“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,” said Sean Mahoney of the Conservation Law Foundation.

LURC oversees the planning and zoning for 10.4 million acres of largely undeveloped land in the northern part of the state. Key highlights from the report also include changing the scope and purpose statement of the commission; shifting some LURC responsibilities to other departments; relocating staff closer to the Unorganized Territory; and changing the appeals process.

The study commission was formed to evaluate ways to improve LURC after legislation, sponsored by Senate President Kevin Raye, to completely eliminate the body failed to pass out of the Agriculture Committee. Raye is running for Congress against Congressman Mike Michaud.

“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,” said former Maine Deputy Attorney General Jeff Pidot.

These deep concerns stem from the reality of how other states have lost pristine land to developers not concerned about the natural beauty and asset of forest lands. Thousands of people from around the world visit Maine just to sees its natural wonders.

“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.”

The report was accompanied with draft legislation.

“It was surprising to see draft legislation come out from the group since they were not given authority to do so,” said Representative McCabe.

“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 Cathy Johnson of NRCM. “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.”

“The draft legislation that was submitted by the Department of Conservation makes additional changes to LURC that would further undercut LURC’s ability to protect the North Woods,” sais Cathy Johnson of NRCM.

The proposal would allow land currently zoned for forestry uses or recreation to be rezoned for development even if it would have an undue adverse impact on existing uses and resources. Currently any rezoning is required not to have an ‘undue adverse impact.’

“DOC’s proposal also would allow municipalities and counties to drop out of LURC and provide less protection than LURC did for Maine’s natural, recreational and historic resources,” said Johnson.

Current law requires municipalities to have in place zoning and rules which provide an equivalent level of natural, recreational and historic resource protection as is provided under LURC law.

“LURC currently provides one-stop land use planning, zoning, permitting, and enforcement in Maine’s North Woods,” said Emily Figdor of Environment Maine. “The LURC Reform Committee’s proposal will result in a fragmented and complicated system that is far more unpredictable, inefficient, and expensive than the existing LURC approach.”