If some of the recommendations put forth by the Land Use Regulation Commission (LURC) Reform Commission last week weren’t reason enough for concern, now the LePage Administration has really thrown a wrench into things. And it’s Maine’s treasured North Woods that’s at stake.
Although NRCM agrees with some of the Reform Commission’s recommendations (for example, more regional involvement in developing regional zoning plans, though in partnership with LURC), big concerns remain. We object to allowing counties to opt out of LURC, as this would likely lead to piecemeal planning and is the equivalent of abolishing LURC, one county at a time. Our concerns also include transferring review of all large development projects to DEP, with small projects going to the counties and mid-sized projects handled by LURC—rather than reducing red tape, such a change would likely increase it, since proposals would need to be shepherded by three entities rather than one.
Then this week, the Reform Commission’s work was sideswiped, when the chair of the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry (ACF) Committee, Sen. Roger Sherman (R-Aroostook), turned responsibility for drafting what should be the ACF Committee bill over to the co-chairs of the Reform Committee, DOC Commissioner Bill Beardsley and Sarah Medina, of Seven Islands Land Management Company. Giving this responsibility to citizens—neither Beardsley nor Medina are elected officials—is unprecedented.
Cathy Johnson, NRCM’s North Woods project director, says, “In my 22 years following the Legislature, I have never seen a committee hand over drafting of a committee bill to unelected citizens.” Chairman Sherman also barred the involvement of legislators.
Typically, the legislative committee charged with drafting a bill discusses the recommendations of any study commission assigned to the issue. Once they come to agreement on the elements they think belong in the bill, their legislative staff drafts a bill for the committee. That is then usually followed by a public hearing.
By bypassing committee discussion and agreement on the bill, and by barring legislators from the drafting process, the committee has polarized the debate and ignored the will of Maine people. During the meetings that took place last fall, two-thirds of the people who testified urged the Reform Commission to protect Maine’s North Woods by keeping LURC strong. The group was charged with the task of creating a bipartisan plan. The process we saw this week amounts to a breakdown of civil discourse. This, coupled with disregard for the normal legislative process, puts the process at risk for extreme solutions rather than reasoned compromise. Maine’s North Woods are too important to let that happen.
NRCM will continue to follow this issue closely and will do all we can to help get the process back on track. Maine’s North Woods is too special a place to be relegated to partisan politics. We’ll let you know when and what you can do to help.