Maine’s North Woods Could Pay the Price
Members of a broad coalition of conservation and planning groups are raising concerns about reforms proposed for the Land Use Regulation Commission (LURC) and how those reforms are being addressed in the Legislature. Maine’s legendary North Woods—the anchor of our forest products and tourism economies and our natural outdoors heritage—stands to pay a high price.
“At the reform commission meetings last fall, 2/3 of the citizens who testified urged the study committee to protect Maine’s heritage and keep LURC strong,” said Cathy Johnson, North Woods Project Director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “While many of the reform commission’s recommendations make sense, some of them would weaken current environmental standards and undercut LURC’s ability to protect the North Woods, the largest undeveloped forest east of the Mississippi, an area of undeveloped lakes, rivers, and mountains, and home to a myriad of wildlife species not found elsewhere.”
“Now, as the Committee works to turn those recommendations into law, in an unprecedented move, legislators have been barred from participating. The chair of the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee handed over drafting of the committee’s bill to two citizens, and barred legislators from being involved,” said Johnson. “In my 22 years following the Legislature, I have never seen a committee hand over drafting of a committee bill to unelected citizens.”
“The LURC Reform Commission was specifically directed by the Legislature to draft recommendations, but was not asked to draft legislation,” said Sean Mahoney, Maine Director of the Conservation Law Foundation. “Normally, committees receive these types of reports, discuss them, decide which recommendations they want to enact through law, and work with their staff to draft the legislation. I have never seen the responsibility for drafting a committee bill given to two unelected citizens who served on the study commission. And barring legislators from meetings between those citizens and the committee’s staff is unprecedented.”
“Maine people expect their elected officials to represent them and their values in the Legislature. It is unfair to constituents and dangerous for Maine to block legislators on the committee of jurisdiction from even sitting in and listening to a legislative drafting session on something as important as the fate of the North Woods,” said Emily Figdor, Director of Environment Maine.
“The Committee needs to use a process to reform LURC that ensures bipartisan buy-in,” said Beth Ahearn, Political Director of Maine Conservation Voters. “One of the principles adopted by the LURC reform committee was to ensure that any proposed changes would stand the test of time, rather than leading to more changes next year. “The current legislative process undermines that simple, essential principle, and should be abandoned immediately.”
Problems with the recommendations:
“Specifically, we oppose a recommendation that allows county commissioners to appoint themselves to the LURC board. It is unprecedented for a Maine State regulatory board to include locally elected members, and this makes sense because conflicts inevitably arise between responding to local politics and a commissioner’s legal duty to make decisions based entirely on the law and facts on the record,” said Figdor. “With Maine’s natural heritage on the line, we can’t afford to compromise the ability of the Commissioners to make responsible decisions.”
“We oppose a recommendation that would allow counties to opt out of LURC after three years,” said Jenn Gray, Staff Attorney for Maine Audubon. “This is simply abolishing LURC, one county at a time. Efforts to abolish LURC last session were unsuccessful because it could lead a piecemeal approach to planning, zoning and permitting in the North Woods. Those who want to abolish LURC should not be allowed to slip this in through this back door.”
“We also have concerns about transferring review of all large development projects to DEP, while small projects go to the counties and “medium” projects stay at LURC,” said Bryan Wentzell, Maine Policy Director for the Appalachian Mountain Club. “The AMC has 66,000 acres of conservation forestland in the UT in Piscataquis County. We are building trails, shelters, campsites, and renovating sporting camps all for public use to attract more people to the area, while also conducting sustainable timber harvesting operations. It will turn into a bureaucratic nightmare for us if we have to start dealing with three separate agencies instead of one for permitting.”
“While we support the recommendation calling for more regional involvement in developing regional zoning plans, it needs to be clear that regional zoning will be done in a partnership between LURC and regional entities, and will be consistent with the statewide vision for Maine’s North Woods that is set out in LURC’s Comprehensive Land Use Plan,” said Ahearn of Maine Conservation Voters.
“We also oppose eliminating the requirement that applicants demonstrate there is a need for their project,” said Jym St. Pierre, Maine Director of RESTORE: the North Woods and a former LURC senior staffer. “Maine’s North Woods are unique in the eastern U.S. We don’t want this extraordinary area destroyed by misplaced speculative development. Too often that results in projects no one wants, damage to wildlife habitat, and unnecessary costs to the public for unneeded infrastructure. Once it’s developed, it’s gone forever.”