AUGUSTA, Maine — Proposed changes to the Land Use Regulation Commission would strip needed protections from much of the state, environmental groups charged Thursday.
Conservation Commissioner Bill Beardsley, who chaired the study group that drafted the bill to change LURC, says that is not true.
“These rollbacks threaten to destroy the North Woods as we know it, and once they’re gone, they’re lost forever,” said Alexandra Fields, preservation associate at Environment Maine. “Anyone who has been to the North Woods knows what is at risk.”
The group delivered 17,000 messages they had gathered from Mainers with concerns about the legislation and they said the messages originated from every legislative district. They included postcards, signatures on an online petition and a few handwritten letters.
“It would roll back the protections that discourage reckless development by undermining the Land Use Regulation Commission,” she said. “For 40 years, LURC has aimed to balance the interest of landowners with the public value of protecting Maine’s treasured wild places. The bill would change all of that.”
Commissioner Beardsley said the laws protecting the unorganized territories would not be repealed by the proposed legislation. He said making sure that those who live in the areas under the jurisdiction of LURC have representation on the commission simply makes sense.
“I get really ripped of the elitist element that creeps into why it is we don’t want local people to have some influence over LURC,” he said. “The underlying objective was how do we get people that have skin in the game involved on the commission.”
Beardsley said the folks that live in the area and the landowners should have the right to be involved in LURC as it regulates development.
“I get very disillusioned with people that think that local people and county people don’t know enough to do this,” he said.
Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, said the legislation would “roll back” protection for land and waterways. He charged allowing counties to opt out of LURC oversight of the unorganized territories in the county would undermine oversight. He is the Democratic lead on the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee that will consider the legislation.
“Changing the makeup of LURC to allow county commissioners to appoint themselves would reduce oversight and compromise the commission’s ability to make sound land use decisions due to the inevitable conflict of interest involved,” he said.
Beardsley said the proposed legislation does not abolish LURC, does not abolish the LURC staff and does not repeal the comprehensive plan that governs development in the unorganized territories. He said he does not see how its adoption would weaken oversight.
“My feeling is that this legislation is not a condemnation of LURC or its process,” he said, “it is fine-tuning it.”
Beardsley said he does not support the efforts to take the privately owned lands in northern Maine and turn the land into a national park as is the goal of some of those criticizing the LURC legislation. He said those who live in the unorganized territories want to see the opportunity for jobs to be created that can exist in harmony with the environment.
“This is the group that doesn’t believe in private property,” he said. “They are the ones that say the only way to solve the problem in northern Maine, I think I got it right, is we have to have a public taking and turn this into a national park.”
Jym St. Pierre, Maine Director of RESTORE: the North Woods, said the panel Beardsley chaired did not make a recommendation to abolish LURC, but the proposed changes could prevent the agency from doing its job.
“Taken together the panels’s recommendations would emasculate the agency,” he said. “Abolishing LURC slowly, rather than quickly.”
The legislation is scheduled for a public hearing by the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee on Thursday, February 16.