by George Smith
Maine’s North Woods consists of 10 million acres of contiguous forest, our recreational playground, driver of our forest economy and a unique national resource. It’s also a battleground of unparalleled passion.
We call it the unorganized territories because the entire region has within it no organized towns, and we’ve managed its affairs since 1971 through a state agency, the Land Use Regulation Commission.
A host of problems, including an overly burdensome bureaucracy and complexity of regulations, led to periodic attempts by landowners in the unorganized territories to eliminate LURC. Democrats in control of the Legislature routinely defeated those attempts.
And then Republicans — never big fans of LURC — were swept into power, and many figured LURC to be an early victim of this change in leadership.
At the public hearing on a bill to transfer LURC’s planning and regulatory authority to the counties, Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry, presented a scathing attack on the agency.
“LURC … resembles a colonial power able to impose its members’s 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 agency’s role. Raye said he “was appalled at the repugnant and humiliating nature,” of LURC’s process in the Plum Creek case.
Raye continued, saying 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.”>/p>
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.
Rep. Robert Duchesne, D-Hudson, offered a rebuttal, urging the committee to “do some serious thinking in work session about making any level of government bigger.”>/p>
Simply “swapping LURC for county control is not an even swap. LURC has been way underfunded for years,” testified Duchesne. “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.”>/p>
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.
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 specific actions to address those frustrations without eliminating LURC.
They are all worthy of consideration.
Democratic Rep. John Martin, of Eagle Lake, who served as the first chairman of the Land Use Regulation Commission, testified that he is convinced that changes are LURC are necessary, but “would never give anything to the counties.” 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.
Astonishingly, this is just what Republicans did. They stepped back from the proposal to abolish LURC and offered an amendment calling for a commission to examine the issues and bring recommendations to the next legislative session.
Even that proposal, however, was contentious. After three rather ugly work sessions, Republican members of the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee endorsed one amendment, while Democratic committee members supported a different version. They could not agree on the membership or duties of the task force.
So the debate continues. Most informed individuals agree that the way we plan, zone, manage and protect these 10 million acres must change. This is a debate worthy of the interest and participation of every one of us. During the hearing, I found myself agreeing with almost every speaker: LURC needs fixing.
But shutting down LURC and asking counties to tackle these difficult and complex tasks would be a mistake. Republicans did the right thing in stepping back from that proposal.
Better, I think, to fix the state agency, make it efficient, effective and landowner-friendly, and maintain a consistent approach to managing the North Woods that defines who we were, who we are, and who we want to be.