A controversial proposal to revamp the Land Use Regulation Commission has been unanimously approved by a legislative committee, virtually guaranteeing its passage by the full Legislature. Debate over the future of the agency responsible for zoning and planning in Maine’s vast unorganized territories has raged for more than a year. But one of the most contentious parts of the bill has been removed. And the final result is being characterized as a solid compromise.
A year ago, Republican Sen. Roger Sherman of Houlton thought members of the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee could never reach a unanimous decision on something so controversial as the future of LURC. As the committee co-chair, Sherman knew there were intensely strong feelings about the commission. Some lawmakers were even proposing that it be abolished, with control given over to county governments.
“We had such a fight on it we said, ‘Well, we’ll put a study group out to take a look at it,’s and that was last year,” he recalls. “And we tried to get a broad representation from pro’s and con people with no legislators on it–to take politics out of it, so to speak.”
The task force itself came under fire from environmentalists, who felt it was stacked with LURC opponents. And hearings were exhaustive, with an outpouring of concern for the future of the 10-million acres that make up Maine’s North Woods. Critics felt the seven-member commission, appointed by the governor, was too restrictive on economic development. Opponents, including several environmental groups, wanted to ensure that the agency, with its conservation ethic, remained intact.
And while LURC’s jurisdiction may be the undeveloped, northern part of the state, Sherman says there was plenty of interest and input from the south. “The number of emails I had from southern Maine I think outweighed the number of emails I had above the 45th parallel, as I call it,” he says.
Sherman says many people own camps in Maine’s North Woods or just feel a special connection to a place still considered mostly wild and remote. In the end the bill that emerged with a unanimous committee vote stripped out a controversial provision that would have allowed counties to opt out of LURC’s jurisdiction.
“That’s a significant, a very significant, improvement in the bill,” says Cathy Johnson, the North Woods Project Director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine. She says committee members deserve credit for achieving that outcome in lengthy negotiations.
“There were a number of Republicans who made it clear to their leadership that they would not go along with the ‘opt out’s provision and we think they deserve huge credit, and we really appreciate their willingness to stand up for what is right for the North Woods.”
Johnson says the NRCM is pleased that LURC will continue to guide planning and zoning in the North Woods. She views the final bill as a good compromise, but says she remains concerned about the makeup of the future commission. Under the terms of the bill LURC would be represented by nine members, all but one of them county commissioners or their designees. The panel would be vetted by the Legislature.
But Johnson isn’t the only one who has concerns about that selection process. Emily Figdor of Environment Maine says she does, too. “The makeup of the new commission is definitely a concern,” Figdor says. “The concern is that it won’t be independent but instead it will be composed of people who have conflicts of interest and that will tilt decision-making toward development.”
In a written statement, Republican Senate President Kevin Raye, of Perry, called the unanimous vote an “important step forward in the effort to bring greater local control and accountability to land use planning in Maine’s Unorganized Territory.” Raye is a strong supporter of LURC reform and was the sponsor of the bill last year that would have dismantled the agency. He said this result “shows what can happen when people are willing to listen and respond to each other respectfully in order to bridge differences.”
The bill now goes to the full Legislature for consideration.