by Ernie Hilton
I grew up in Starks, in Somerset County, on a family farm of 200 years where we live now. I worked on the last log drives on Moosehead Lake in the early ‘70s for Scott Paper and was working there when the Land Use Regulation Commission came into being.
I have two engineering degrees, one from the University of Maine (after working in underground coal mines for a number of years) and one from West Virginia University. With these degrees and my professional engineering license, I worked for an engineering consulting firm in Harrisburg, Pa., doing industry permitting and studies of mining practices. Later, I headed to law school, finishing in Portland, and worked for the Public Utilities Commission on various investigations of industrial energy generation.
For the last 25 years, I have had an engineering and legal practice in Madison. My legal practice has focused on real estate issues. In addition, I spent just shy of 10 years on the Maine Board of Environmental Protection and served as chair for a period. I’m a lifelong registered Republican.
While there may be issues with LURC, abolishing it would fix nothing, and would poorly serve the state. The counties are, at least at present, a very poor substitute for what has become a state function. Historically, counties have not engaged to any significant degree in the planning, permitting and enforcement functions that are an absolute necessity.
If the initiatives now before the Legislature are passed, they may feel good in the short term, but the mid- and long-term result will be major upheaval for many years, as counties try to gear-up.
The result would be a disjointed, duplicative and inefficient process for residents and businesses.
First, the institutional memory would disappear. The implications of this range across the spectrum of significance. Even seemingly minor matters could raise major headaches. For instance, many future actions on old permits held by small-scale owners and developers throughout Maine’s Unorganized Territory could be upended and subject to endless dispute and question by neighbors and others.
Counties, as is true of municipalities, are simply not set up to handle such matters on this scale. I just this week dealt with questions regarding interpretation of a permit for a subdivision created in the early ‘70s. The LURC staffer with whom I spoke was well able to help with the issue and did so in minutes. A county-based person would simply not have been able to handle it, not because they are a lesser person, but because it will be years before they would develop a knowledge base as to the background.
Second, counties do not have the array of in-house expertise available, either technical or legal, at least not without considerable expense to the counties. In my tenure on the BEP, a number of occasions arose where we relied to a considerable extent on the attorney general’s office and-or on in-house technical staff to resolve issues and to carefully wend our way through thickets of due process and equal protection issues. This may seem like a minor issue, but at the state level, these people are already on staff.
Neighbor-v.-applicant or neighbor-v.-neighbor issues concerning project applications can quickly swallow counties’ budgets. No one wants an additional major budget line at the county level. And believe me, even the staunchest conservative Libertarian wants their constitutional rights protected.
Third, to provide the state’s UT with the quality of even minimal planning, permitting and enforcement it warrants, will require considerably greater financial resources, spread out over nine county organizations rather than one, than is required now.
The bottom line here is that the state is far better off fixing what appears to be wrong with LURC than abolishing it. The upheaval to the state from its abolition, with, quite frankly, the mere prospect of either citizen-petitions to overturn the abolition, or a legislative about-face and reinstatement of LURC in a few years, would create a level of uncertainty that could traumatize development, particularly of large projects.
These bills might seem like a good idea at first blush, but in fact they need a lot of careful study, and they really should be tabled.