by Kate Cough
Ellsworth American news story
ELLSWORTH — New rules under consideration by the Maine Land Use Planning Commission (LUPC) could alter the way land in Maine’s unorganized territories, including Fletchers Landing Township and areas around Tunk Lake, is managed, if they are passed as is by the nine-member commission this fall.
On June 20, at the only scheduled public hearing on the proposed rule changes, nine LUPC board members and assorted staff heard testimony from dozens of residents and groups concerned about the proposal and what many felt was a rushed process.
The change that has received the most attention is that of the “adjacency principle,” which has governed building in the territories for decades. Under current regulations, commercial and residential developers seeking approval for projects on land managed by the LUPC must first satisfy what is known as “the one-mile rule,” which states that any new development must be within one road mile of “existing compatible development.”
Commissioners, who have been working on the new rules since 2014, say changes are long overdue and claim the current policy is “too blunt a tool.” They argue that the one-mile rule has encouraged “leapfrogging,” in which a new development becomes the yardstick from which adjacency for the next development can be measured.
The proposal would change the one-mile rule to allow for residential subdivisions and commercial uses within 10 miles of a “rural” or “retail” hub and two miles from a public road. The 10-mile boundary, known as the “primary area,” would be the edge of where such development is allowed, said Samantha Horn, planning manager of the LUPC.
A secondary area would allow some subdivisions to be built up to five miles from a public road, “as long as they are away from water bodies and have access to emergency services,” commissioners wrote in a memo.
Many at the June 20 meeting opposed the changes, calling for the one-mile rule to be retained.
“The distances outlined in the primary and secondary areas are much too far and don’t accomplish the stated goal of locating new development ‘close to existing development and public services,’” said Kaitlyn Bernard, Maine policy manager for the Appalachian Mountain Club, which recommended changing the rule to three miles from a hub and within one mile of a public road.
The Natural Resources Council of Maine also opposed the changes, writing that the rules would “fragment forests and threaten wildlife habitat.”
“Maine’s North Woods is at a crossroads and this policy puts it at grave risk,” said Cathy Johnson, forests and wildlife director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, in a press release. “Development is irreversible, so once it’s gone it’s gone forever.”
Many residents also raised concerns about the proposal’s allowance of low-density subdivisions. Horn said in an interview after the meeting that there has been some confusion that the group is bringing back permitting exemptions for subdivisions, which she said is not the case.
The exemptions refer to previous decades when landowners with over 40 acres could subdivide their lots without getting a permit, Horn said.
“That was creating patterns where it was chewing up a lot of land really quickly,” she said, “and the Legislature ended that practice.”
The proposal would allow subdivisions with lots between 12 and 25 acres whose lots are entirely contained within the primary and secondary areas and away from water bodies, Horn said. All subdivisions would be required to obtain a permit from the LUPC.
Horn said she understood the concerns of groups such as the Appalachian Mountain Club, which oppose the idea of low-density subdivisions altogether.
“They feel like that lot size is an inefficient use of land and will fragment habitat,” Horn said. “That’s a good policy discussion to have.”
Another concern that has been raised is that of development on remote lakes and ponds outside of the primary and secondary areas. Many argued that commissioners lacked the data to classify which lakes should be developed.
“This uncertainty and the lack of available analysis makes it impossible to evaluate the impacts of this proposal,” wrote Friends of Baxter State Park Executive Director Aaron Megquier and President Richard Klain in written testimony.
Horn argued that the proposal “is actually more protective of undeveloped lakes and ponds than the current policy.” She described a scenario with two lakes less than a mile apart, one with a cluster of residences along its shores and another that is undeveloped. Under the current policy, the lake with no development could be vulnerable to building because it falls within the one-mile boundary of “existing compatible development.”
Under the new proposal, the undeveloped lake would be “off-limits” to new building, Horn said, because a lake would be required to have at least five residences and meet other criteria before new development would be allowed.
Another issue addressed by the proposal is that of “resource-dependent” uses. Considered separately from commercial and residential subdivisions, Horn described businesses such as lumber processing operations on the back of a truck, or renting kayaks and mountain bikes.
“We don’t right now have a regulatory structure that permits us to allow that without also allowing other inappropriate things,” Horn said.
The zoning for such uses would be temporary, Horn said.
“These zones would revert and we’d say ‘OK, this place is appropriate for this use, but we’re not going to make any assumptions about uses in the future.’”
But some opposed such uses near wilderness areas.
“Food trucks at trailheads aren’t what we’re looking for,” said Ryan Linn, owner of PelotonLabs in Portland.
“Encouraging sprawl, damaging natural resources and adding to taxpayer burdens seems so obviously wrong that it seems it should be unnecessary to explain why extending that distance is a bad idea,” said Salisbury Cove resident Ben Emory, a former board member of Land for Maine’s Future and the Forest Society, in written testimony to the commission.
Many residents and groups also expressed concern that the changes could encourage strip-style development along scenic byways, which the commission has acknowledged is a potential problem.
“The proposed rules could allow this destructive pattern to spread to the unorganized territories,” wrote the New England Forestry Foundation, lamenting the loss of the region’s forests and adding that the current iteration of the proposed rules creates “incentives for strip-style development.”
Photographer and former forester Roger Merchant told commissioners he didn’t see the rush for development that would require altering the rules.
“I don’t see where the wave is coming over the next 25 years that’s going to require 2 million acres of land dedicated to those kind of uses,” Merchant said.
The Maine Forest Products Council agreed with Merchant regarding the boom, but disagreed on the outcome of the rules.
“There is no building boom,” the council wrote, adding, “We think they do not go far enough to encourage development,” and “There is so little development in the UT [unorganized territory] that it’s becoming increasingly difficult for Maine people to work or live there.”
Almost all called for more time to review the rules and an additional public hearing. As of right now, public comments will be accepted through Sept. 24. Horn said commissioners are open to the idea of extending the timeline.
“A carpenter without a plan builds a crooked house,” said Richard Washburn of Penobscot. “The planning needs to be complete, and this is not complete.”