You know it’s going to be a long day when a legislative hearing begins with a 36-page amendment to the principle bill being heard - LD 1534, sponsored by Senate President Kevin Raye. But given the long and contentious history of the Land Use Regulation Commission, I guess something like this could have been expected.
Four bills seeking to reform, reorganize, or abolish LURC were scheduled for this Tuesday, May 17, hearing. A large turnout forced many into nearby rooms where they could listen to the hearing. I secured my seat in the hearing room an hour prior to the start by leaving my briefcase and computer there – an old trick I learned a long time ago.
Unfortunately, the amendment to LD 1534 resulted in two hearings. Members of the public – who had no access to the amendment prior to the hearing – testified on the four bills scheduled. The LePage Administration, some legislators, county commissioners, and large landowners represented by the Maine Forest Products Council – all of whom participated in the drafting of the amendment – testified on the amendment.
While three of the bills would shut down LURC, and one (sponsored by Rep. Jeff McCabe is designed to streamline LURC’s processes while maintaining the agency, it’s the amended version of LD 1534 that will serve as the primary vehicle for discussion and action in a work session scheduled for May 20 by the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee.
In a nutshell, the amendment shuts down LURC and transfers most of its responsibilities for planning, zoning, and regulation in the unorganized territories to the counties. Oversight of forestry practices would shift from LURC to the Maine Forest Service. Responsibility for the Natural Resources Protection Act and Site Location of Development Act stays with the Department of Environmental Protection including wind power development. A yearlong transition process is also described in the amendment.
The counties are given several options to accept the new responsibilities and authorities as individual counties, groups of counties, or by a county-based land Use Review and Appeals Board. Counties also are provided with an array of options for land use planning, zoning and permitting in the unorganized territories.
The amendment claims “the bill pays for itself through existing tax revenues and the municipal cost component for services.” The cost issue is certain to get more scrutiny.
Senate President Raye kicked off the long afternoon with a very strong statement. “Nowhere else in the United States is there an equivalent of LURC, and I have long questioned the fairness and wisdom of Maine’s approach to planning in the (unorganized territories),” testified Raye. “In rural Maine, the acronym LURC is synonymous with heavy-handed government bureaucracy and overreach.”
“LURC… resembles a colonial power able to impose its members’ will on any given part of the (unorganized territories),” charged Raye, who cited LURC’s “absolutely shameful process surrounding the proposed Plum Creek development in Piscataquis County,” as one of the things that caused him to question the role of LURC. Raye said he “was appalled at the repugnant and humiliating nature,” of LURC’s process in the Plum Creek case.
Raye emphasized his desire to establish local control over decisions in the unorganized territories. “Under current Maine law and the LURC model, the people of Portland and other communities have as much of a voice and control over the (unorganized territories) as the very people who live there,” he said.
He said the “LURC model… is a paternalistic anachronism of a bygone era when those who were running Augusta at the time favored central planning and felt that local government was not up to the challenge of running their own affairs.”
In what certainly was one of Raye’s most passionate and powerful speeches, he laid out a strong case for eliminating LURC and shifting its responsibilities to Maine counties.
Bill Beardsley, Commissioner of the Department of Conservation, spoke in favor of the amendment, laying out a careful argument based on economics.
“Counties where LURC plans, zones and permits most of the land are, without exception, the poorest counties in Maine…. There is evidence of significant, endemic poverty in most of LURC’s jurisdiction,” said Beardsley.
“In these same counties, in the forty years of LURC oversight, there have been virtually no significant capital investments in value-added natural resource processing in the 10 million acres of LURC jurisdiction, an area larger than either Vermont or New Hampshire. Without such investment economic vitality is constrained. That LURC has zoned only 1 percent of this jurisdiction for development exemplifies the problem,” testified Beardsley.
“Specifically, Millinocket exemplifies an organized town surrounded by LURC unorganized townships, supposedly a municipal beneficiary of LURC’s comprehensive land use plans. Its median family income was among the highest if not the highest in the state when LURC started forty years ago. Today its mills are closed, employment, property values and tax base have collapsed, the local and regional economy a shadow of what it once was. Millinocket is not alone,” noted Beardsley.
Beardsley charged LURC with “institutional failure to achieve a large part of its legislated mission to perverse the general welfare… commercial and industrial uses…. To encourage well-planned… and managed multiple use of land and resources.”
As usual, Representative Bob Duchense offered very thoughtful testimony “neither for nor against” the bills, urging the committee to “do some serious thinking in work session about making any level of government bigger.”
Simply “swapping LURC for county control is not an even swap. LURC has been way under funded for years,” testified Duchense. “It’s the biggest reason they get a bad rap for being slow… I can just about guarantee that every county with significant jurisdiction of the (unorganized territories” is going to need more resources to get up to speed.”
Duchesne has served on many committees and projects that looked at issues in the unorganized territories and presented three pages of examples of the difficult issues that will be involved in shifting LURC’s responsibilities to the counties. It was a sobering list.
Typical for lash-ups like this one, we were two hours into the public hearing before the public got a chance to testify.
Tom Abello of The Nature Conservancy presented one of the most thoughtful bits of testimony in opposition to abolishing LURC. Reviewing what he labeled “the frustrations many express,” Abello recommended five actions to address those frustrations without eliminating LURC. The actions were:
1) Undertake prospective zoning through a broadly inclusive and representative process that takes into consideration the needs of struggling rural towns and service centers;
2) Clarify and streamline the standards for Concept Plans, adjacency and other tools by establishing clear and predictable steps and standards upfront to get project approval. This will go a long way toward expediting decisions, reducing confusion and avoiding delays;
3) Provide opportunities for representatives from the service center communities that serve the jurisdiction (Jackman, Greenville, Millinocket, Machias, Patten/Ashland, etc.) to serve on LURC;
4) Articulate reasonable economic development guidelines that encourage opportunities that are well-sited and compatible with the resource;
5) Make LURC standards and practices more consistent with DEP standards and practices to avoid confusion.
Representative John Martin, speaking in opposition to the bills, gave the committee a history lesson (he was there in 1971 at the creation of LURC). He recalled testimony in favor of the creation of LURC by Republican and Democratic legislators. Martin was actually LURC’s first chair, before legislators were prohibited from accepting gubernatorial appointments. Martin outlined some of the problems that led to LURC’s creation, an interesting and informative presentation even though he was limited, like most of the others who testified, to three minutes.
Martin recommended that these “complicated issues” be dealt with by killing all the bills and organizing a task force to bring back a proposal in 2012. “I would never give anything to the counties,” he emphasized, adding he is convinced that changes at LURC are necessary.
As the hearing continued into the dinner hour, it occurred to me that this is really a very significant debate about the future of Maine’s North Woods. We’ve been having that debate for a long time, but this is the first time in more than two decades that significant changes in the way we plan, zone, manage, and protect these 10 million acres are likely to be made.