By The BDN Editorial Board
Bangor Daily News editorial
Land owners, developers and residents of the state’s Unorganized Territory have long complained that it is too hard to subdivide land and build houses there. Currently, the Land Use Planning Commission is considering easing a longtime restriction on subdivisions throughout the entire 10 million acres of mostly timberland it oversees.
Prospective zoning, designating areas in the UT that are appropriate for development, is a much better way to go. Like the state’s expedited wind law, prospective zoning identifies areas, such as those near existing communities and roads and away from conserved areas, that are appropriate for development. Permitting for development in these designated areas would be quicker and would not require rezoning.
The LUPC already has completed prospective zoning in the Rangeley area and is working on a similar process, which it calls community-guided planning and zoning, in Aroostook County, Washington County and western Maine. This is a more direct way to plan for development in the UT than rewriting development standards, particularly those related to subdivisions.
Prospective zoning also aligns with the LUPC’s recent charge to be more proactive, instead of reactive, with regard to development proposals. This message was a foundation for a 2012 document outlining how LUPC should interpret the Comprehensive Land Use Plan, which guides the commission’s work. Also in 2012, a focus on “regional economic vitality” was added to the commission’s charge. In an inherent conflict, recognized by the guidance document, LUPC is also responsible for conserving the value of the land and water in the UT for all of Maine. Prospective zoning can help the commission maintain that balance.
Under current LUPC definitions, only 1 percent of the land in the UT is zoned for development. As a result, nearly all plans for development require a zone change in order to go forward, ramping up scrutiny of these plans.
At the same time, however, it does not appear there is pent-up demand for subdivisions in the UT. According to figures from the commission, nearly 84 percent of subdivision applications were approved from 1971 to 2013. Only 5.5 percent were rejected; 9 percent were withdrawn. Over those four decades, those figures amounted to the approval of 503 projects, with more than a quarter of them in Franklin County, near the state’s ski areas. Data from the Maine Real Estate Information System show that land sales in the Unorganized Territory have risen dramatically in recent years compared to the years before the recession. There were 82 land sales in 2014, compared with 44 in 2007.
But while sales have increased, actual development has not. The number of new subdivisions and dwellings have declined in recent years, likely because of the recession. Several subdivisions are permitted but have yet to be built. A plan from Plum Creek Timber Co. to rezone nearly 400,000 acres in the Moosehead Lake region for the development of 975 house lots and two resorts was approved by the Land Use Regulation Commission — the precursor to the LUPC — in 2009, for example. The Maine Supreme Judicial Court upheld the approval in 2012, but the company has not filed development permit applications to advance the project.
As part of its work on subdivision rules, LUPC sent out a survey to gauge sentiment about the current standards. The commission received eight survey responses, five from landowners/development representatives and three from environmental groups. The results were predictable: Landowners and developers wanted the subdivision rules relaxed, and the environmental groups thought no change was necessary.
These groups generally agree a more proactive approach to zoning makes sense. They will naturally disagree about where development — and how much development — should be allowed. Working with both interests, as well as local residents, to map out where development is appropriate and where it is not is a better approach than making piecemeal changes to subdivision and other development standards.