Maine Citizens Who Depend on North Woods for Their Homes, Businesses, Jobs, and Recreation Come to August to Fight for Maine’s North Woods Heritage
Today, leading citizens from throughout Maine, including the North Woods, gathered in Augusta to speak out about major problems with pending legislation that could spell the end of Maine’s North Woods as we know it.
The North Woods covers half of Maine, and is the largest remaining forest in the eastern US, vast enough to provide timber for the forest products industry, wildlife habitat, and myriad tourism and recreation opportunities.
A proposed bill (LD 1798), could undermine the effectiveness of the Land Use Regulation Commission (LURC), the state agency that for the past 40 years has done a good job of balancing economic development and ecological protection in Maine’s North Woods, by providing planning, permitting, and enforcement activities that have helped to protect what is special about Maine’s North Woods while respecting local and regional needs.
“LURC serves a vital role in maintaining the North Woods for forest products and outdoor recreation,” says Howard Trotzky, former Republican Senator from Bangor (1974-82). “Several of the provisions in this bill would take away LURC’s ability to protect the forest and those industries.”
“County Commissioners may not necessarily be the best LURC Commissioners,” says Gary McGrane, Franklin County Commissioner for 23 years. “I don’t think we should take short cuts in the process of appointing LURC’s members, or think someone should be able to serve as LURC Commissioner and a County Commissioner at the same time. I am concerned that a conflict of interest could arise if County Commissioners, who were elected by the residents of a county and are subject to local interests and pressures, were also serving on LURC at the same time, responsible for applying state law to evidence brought forward on specific applications. Those two responsibilities could frequently be in conflict. The county opt-out provision is really the same as abolishing LURC one county at a time, and it would require tax increases as taxpayers in my county would suddenly need to pay for planning, permitting, zoning, and enforcement.”
“While much is good in the proposed LURC reforms, it’s vital that Maine sustains all the thoughtful, careful standards already developed for this region over the last 40 years,” says Gordon Mott, a forester and longtime resident of Lakeville Plantation. “It is also important to ensure that future LURC Commissioners are qualified to perform the delicate, difficult task.”
“40 years ago I worked with Democratic and Republican legislators to create the Land Use Regulation Commission to make sure that development was guided in such a way that minimized any destruction caused by poor planning or bad execution of development schemes,” says Horace “Hoddy” Hildreth Jr., chairman of Diversified Communications, a former Republican State Senator and candidate for Congress, and son of the late Gov. Horace Hildreth. “Generally speaking, LURC has served the citizens of Maine well, including those who live in or near the UT. But I traveled to Augusta today because two elements of the proposed LURC legislation cry out for reassessment. One would allow County Commissioners to appoint themselves as members of LURC without any vetting or confirmation by the legislative or executive branches. This would be truly undemocratic. The other would allow a county that contains part of the UT to opt out of LURC if its County Commissioners so choose, with no right of the Legislature, or the citizens of Maine outside such county, to have any say in the matter. If this were to happen, it would be the end of LURC. It would start the creation of inconsistent standards and patchwork development without treating the UT as a whole. It would be bad for the natural resources we treasure, for the businesses whose work stretches across county lines, and for the people of Maine (the true stewards) who don’t have a voice in the county governments of the UT. By all means, efforts to make LURC more efficient and responsive should be pursued — but actions that would balkanize the UT should be avoided at all costs.”
“Wood fiber will become increasingly important as petroleum prices rise,” says Norton “Buzz” Lamb, a retired business man who has spent time in the Unorganized Territories (UT) for 68 years, owns four parcels in two UT counties, manages several hundred acres of forestland, and whose family has owned and farmed land in Maine for almost 300 years. “Given our distance from markets, Maine’s large uninterrupted forests are one of our few competitive advantages for both the forest products and tourism industries. Requiring applicants to show that there is a need for their proposed development project helps avoid speculative development and the dangers that such development poses to both our economy and wildlife.”
Last year, a bill was introduced to abolish the Land Use Regulation Commission (LURC). Because that proposal lacked support, the Legislature instead launched a task force to study land use planning and regulation in Maine’s North Woods. The task force held six meetings and issued a report in December that proposes changes in the way land use would be regulated in Maine’s Unorganized Territories (UT).
Some of the changes could improve the way LURC operates, but several could significantly harm Maine’s North Woods. LD 1798 was printed at the direction of the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee for the purpose of review and consideration during a public hearing, but the Committee has not yet taken a position on the substance of the bill.
The vast majority of people who testified to the task force said that LURC should not be abolished; rather, they urged the group to focus on areas to improve the efficiency and functioning of the agency so that it continues to serve the interests of all Maine people. Although the task force did, in fact, back away from the idea of abolishing LURC, some of the task force’s proposals could significantly weaken protections for Maine’s North Woods.
Concerns about LD 1798, which capture the task force recommendations, include:
- The new Commission would consist of nine members, six of whom would be from the counties with the greatest acreage in the UT. The County Commissioners would be allowed to appoint themselves directly to the renamed Land Use Planning Commission (LUPC) without going through the normal process of a gubernatorial nomination, legislative committee hearing, and Senate confirmation vote, potentially politicizing a regulatory commission that, by law, is directed to make decisions based upon statutory criteria and a record.
- LD 1798 would allow counties to “opt out” of the unified land use system that consistently applies to the entire North Woods, which could result in the dismantlement of a statewide system, one county at a time. If counties withdrew from LUPC, then it could result in a more expensive, inconsistent, fragmented, and complicated system of land use rules and regulations across Maine’s North Woods.
- LD 1798 eliminates LURCs ability to provide “one-stop shopping” for permitting in the North Woods.
- LD 1798 proposes to turn permitting of all large projects over to the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), but DEP is not equipped to review the impacts of development on the undeveloped character of the North Woods, the scenic values of the North Woods, existing North Woodsâtype recreational uses, and the businesses that rely on Maine’s North Woods. These projects would no longer be reviewed under standards that are based on the Comprehensive Land Use Plan (CLUP) for the UT. DEP also does not review shoreland zoning impacts (it is normally reviewed by municipalities). A project needing rezoning or which is located in the shoreland zone would require permits from both the LUPC and DEP, complicating the permitting process.
- LD 1798 proposes to eliminate the requirement that a developer show there is a need for a proposed project. This could lead to speculative, scattered development and extra costs to the public to pay for public infrastructure (police and fire protection, roads, snow plowing, school buses, etc.) for unneeded developments.