By Alan Crowell, staff writer
In the next 12 months, a board of seven citizens, backed by a staff of 24, will make decisions that could change half of Maine forever.
The Land Use Regulation Commission, created in 1971 to serve as the planning board for Maine’s North Woods, has always been a small agency with a big mission — the 10.4 million acres under its jurisdiction is roughly a quarter of New England.
Now, some worry the agency is short on resources as it faces an onslaught of complex and potentially precedent- setting applications for commercial and industrial projects.
At risk, they say, is a heritage that has been at the core of the state’s identity since Henry David Thoreau wrote of a mossy and moosey wilderness in his essays “The Maine Woods.”>/p>
No longer a wilderness, the North Woods is mostly managed forestland but it remains largely undeveloped and accessible. It has been a birthright to Maine people who have hunted, fished and hiked there for as long as there has been a state.
Conservationists say development now threatens to close off that access and to degrade special places as forestland that was purchased for a few hundred dollars is parceled out for multi-million dollar McMansions.
This year alone, the agency will decide on Plum Creek’s proposal to create 1,000 house lots and two resorts around Moosehead Lake. That’s in addition to a proposed resort near Lake Millinocket, and TransCanada’s plan to put 44 turbines on mountains in northern Franklin County.
Also expected to appear before LURC are an application for a separate subdivision on Moosehead, and possibly at least one more wind power project.
These are in addition to a 10-year revision of the commission’s comprehensive plan and the day-to-day work of reviewing more than a thousand permits for new homes, camps, decks and other projects.
LURC Director Catherine Carroll says that while the agency is seeing a number of applications for projects that are large and complex in scope, it is well equipped and capable of doing its job with the resources it has.
In addition to its staff, Carroll said the agency has the power to hire consultants for unusually large and complex applications, such as Plum Creek’s.
Not everyone agrees that the commission has what it needs.
Jym St. Pierre, Maine director of “Restore: The North Woods” and a former deputy director of the commission, said the agency is understaffed and overworked.
Just as big a concern, said St. Pierre, is what he considers the agency’s overemphasis on being customer-friendly. Projects that should be rejected sometimes receive permits from staff who essentially rewrite applications, he said.
Concerns about staffing are shared by commission members.
“I am concerned that if the staffing levels and the funding available to the agency do not keep up with the number and the scope and the complexity of the applications coming down the pipeline, then the jurisdiction’s sense of place will be lost,” said Commissioner Rebecca Kurtz.
Prospective zoning — the delineation of areas where different types and intensities of development are appropriate — and protecting the sense of place in the unorganized territories go hand in hand, she said.
The 1997 comprehensive plan called for prospective zoning in four areas — the Rangeley area, the land around Moosehead Lake, Carrabassett Valley and the Millinocket area.
In the decade after the plan was adopted, the commission was only able to complete prospective zoning in one of those areas — Rangeley.
Kurtz said the commission has an excellent staff, but a lack of prospective zoning means that too often they are negotiating with landowners on where development can go and where it can’t.
“There is nothing wrong with negotiation but it is a very time-consuming, expensive way to go,” said Kurtz.
Creating a zoning plan like the one in the Rangeley area, however, involves the public in a process that takes into account economic and recreational uses, she said.
“It helps ensure that Mainers have some ownership over how their state is going to look,” Kurtz said.
It also is more fair to the landowner and developer because they know in advance what uses are going to be allowed and what aren’t, she added.
“Development should happen,” she said. “It is just a matter of putting it where it should be.”>/p>
Stephen Wight, co- chairman of the commission, said the agency would like to have more zoning, but creating the plans is a time-intensive process.
“We don’t get to it because we have these other large-scale projects that the planning staff is involved with,” he said.
Overall, however, he said the commission’s “legendary” planning staff is handling the work load well.
Where staff are needed most is in enforcement, according to Wight. There are only 10 or so people tasked with making sure developers and property owners comply with regulations in all of the commission’s jurisdiction, he said.
“There are not enough hours in the day to do the job that needs to be done,” he said.
Longtime staff members say the agency has traditionally had to do a lot with a little.
Fred Todd, manager of planning and administration at LURC, joined in 1972, fresh out of graduate school.
He found himself in an agency of no more than eight, tasked with overseeing a vast territory dominated by seven major landowners.
He remembers asking the then-director Jim Haskell how anyone could consider such a small staff sufficient for that enormous task. By way of an answer, Haskell told him the story of his first budget season.
“He asked for a half- million dollars and 50 positions,” Todd said. “He was given one secretary.”>/p>
Created to combat the effects of unregulated development in the North Woods, the commission quickly found itself dealing with paper companies that had logged their enormous holdings for generations without government interference.
It was a stormy period, with the tiny agency fighting to make road-building and other logging activities more environmentally-friendly.
At the same time, the agency faced annihilation almost yearly as various groups tried to either abolish the commission outright or limit its authority so severely that the agency would have been rendered powerless.
Gradually, however, the major landowners grew to accept the small agency’s authority and, in some cases, its mission.
As regulating the activities of the major landowners became less of a chore in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the agency was able to focus more of its scarce resources on development.
In the 1990s, new challenges appeared as paper companies started to sell off huge swaths of forest land, dramatically increasing the potential for development.
About the same time, new industrial uses for the unorganized territories began to appear, including commercial water extraction and wind power.
“Are there changes going on? Yes. Are we equipped to deal with them? I think we are. Could we be better equipped? Sure,” said Todd.
While it is true, he said, that his agency was not able to complete all four prospective zoning projects, the 1997 comprehensive plan gives the commission the direction it needs to handle applications like Plum Creek’s.
A bigger challenge is preventing lot-by-lot development from changing the character of the North Woods, Todd said. That threat will be addressed in the new comprehensive plan.
One thing the commission can’t do is simply prohibit development, he said.
“The thing that we always have to be mindful of is that we cannot regulate to the point where we are taking property value,” Todd said.
Scott Rollins, manager of the permitting and compliance division, said with 10 people charged with making sure half the state is in compliance with LURC regulations, there are some things his staff simply can’t see.
But that doesn’t mean development is being approved in places where it shouldn’t be, he said.
“Can we make the right decisions on the applications we have in front of us? Definitely yes,” he said.
Catherine Carroll, director of LURC, said the agency has the manpower and resources it needs.
“I don’t want anybody to (think) that LURC can’t do its job,” Carroll said.
While the commission has not done prospective zoning in the Millinocket area or in Carrabassett Valley, she said the agency is not seeing a lot of development pressures in those areas.
“What we are doing in the Moosehead Lake area (regarding the Plum Creek application) is essentially prospective zoning,” Carroll said.
The idea behind zoning is to regulate development and direct it to the most appropriate areas.
Using the existing comprehensive plan, Carroll said her staff has what it needs to accomplish that goal by working with Plum Creek.
At the same time, Carroll said a state commission that studied services in the unorganized territories will ask the Legislature this year to give the commission five new positions. If those positions materialize, they will be allocated to permitting and compliance, she said.
She said the agency’s customer-friendly approach helps create good working relationships between staff and developers, resulting in more education and fewer violations.
Luke Muzzy, Plum Creek Maine Real Estate manager, said from his perspective, the LURC process works.
Plum Creek initially submitted its application for a concept plan in the Moosehead Lake region in April of 2005, later withdrawing that plan and submitting a new application in April of 2006.
Earlier this month the company announced a plan to make revisions to that second plan.
Muzzy said Plum Creek’s application was not complete until late last year.
“We couldn’t really receive much feedback from LURC until the application was complete,” he said.
Once it was finally finished, he said the information his company received was invaluable.
“They are looking out for the state of Maine,” Muzzy said.
“They are giving you feedback from years of experience and years of listening to the public and you (the applicants) need to listen to that feedback.”>/p>
Although the process has been long, Muzzy said the outcome will be valuable for everyone.
Plum Creek owns 75 to 80 percent of the land in the Moosehead Lake region. Muzzy said once the concept plan is completed, the commission will have what amounts to a zoning plan for about five percent of its jurisdiction.
“It gives a level of predictability that really will make things go smoother in the future,” he said.
Environmentalists say, however, that Plum Creek’s application is just one of several that could set the stage for development in the North Woods for decades.
“I think this is probably the most important time period in LURC’s history,” said Cathy Johnson, North Woods project director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine.
“Two-thirds of the land in LURC jurisdiction has changed hands since 1998,” she said.
Those new landowners have goals that differ from those of the paper companies that managed the lands for generations, said Johnson, resulting in “a whole new level of development activity.”>/p>
She said that trend is unlikely to reverse.
The commission is charged with maintaining the character of the largest undeveloped forest east of the Mississippi, she said, adding that the Natural Resources Council of Maine worries that character will be lost if development is allowed in places it should not go.
Jym St. Pierre worked at LURC from 1978 to 1989, eventually becoming deputy director of the agency before leaving to work for nonprofit environmental groups.
The commission is the first of its kind in the country — a magnificent experiment, said St. Pierre, now Maine director of RESTORE: The North Woods, an organization that advocates for endangered wildlife and the creation of a 3.2 million-acre Maine Woods National Park.
The commission has largely succeeded, said St. Pierre, but he said it is clearly under pressure.
“The decisions that LURC is going to be making this year are going to determine the fate of the wild lands into the future,” he said.
St. Pierre said he believes the commission can process applications and render decisions in a timely manner. The question is how good the review process will be.
“I have great concerns about the quality of those decisions,” St. Pierre said. “What I see is overload and (people) hitting the limit.”
The agency needs more resources, but even more important than money and staff is leadership and vision, he said.
During the King administration, St. Pierre said the agency underwent a transformation from regulatory agency to “customer agency” — one that put a heavy emphasis on education and outreach rather than enforcement. That troubling legacy remains, he said.
“There is nothing wrong with being customer-friendly. The problem is when it goes too far and LURC becomes essentially a partner with the applicant,” St. Pierre said.
Jody Jones, a wildlife ecologist with the Maine Audubon Society, said she believes LURC does an exceptional job. But, she added, large complex projects like Plum Creek’s are challenging not just for their scope and complexity, but because the huge corporations behind them want reviews to take place as quickly as possible.
“I think the pressure from applicants to adhere to building schedules that are driven by corporate profits — that kind of pressure is increasing,” Jones said.
She said it is important that the tiny agency be given the support it needs to resist that kind of pressure.
“If LURC is allowed to use their current standards and their comprehensive land use plan without outside political pressure, I think they will do a good job,” she said.
Patrick K. McGowan, commissioner of the Department of Conservation, said LURC has never had more support from both governor and Legislature.
Gov. John E. Baldacci has been a vocal supporter of wind power, he pointed out, but that did not prevent the commission from rejecting a plan to put wind turbines on Black Nubble Mountain and Redington Pond Ridge.
He acknowledges, however, the challenges the commission faces in balancing the demands posed by new industrial uses with the desire to preserve the character of the North Woods.
“Are we moving into a more controversial realm? Yes, I think so,” he said.
Six million acres have changed hands in Maine in the last five years. That means the possibility of more plans like Plum Creek’s in the years to come, McGowan said.
LURC can handle the Plum Creek application, the TransCanada application, and the 1,200 or so smaller applications it will see in the next year, he said.
The biggest challenge facing the agency lies well beyond the next 12 months, he said.
“Right now, absolutely we are doing it. Can we do it in the future? That is still an unknown.”>/p>