As was the case during last year’s legislative session, there are a number of bills before state lawmakers that, if passed, would surely compromise the quality of Maine’s environment.
They are often cast as critical to support Maine’s economy, but that falsely pits jobs against the environment.
In a state where tourism is a major industry, and in which forestry and (some) fisheries still offer opportunities for sustainable resource- based economies, such claims are misguided and outdated. Good planning, including thoughtful regulation, sustains resources — and that sustains jobs.
One bill I have followed closely is LD 1798, An Act to Reform Land Use Planning in the Unorganized Territories. I sat through six or seven hours of testimony at the public hearing in February, hearing most people decry two provisions.
The first provision would allow county commissioners to appoint themselves to the Land Use Regulatory Commission (LURC), the body that oversees land use change in the 10.3 million acres of the “North Woods.”
This is an odd provision, given that good land use planning requires specific knowledge. Land use decisions carry economic, legal and environmental consequences by affecting profits, soils, water quality and the overall health of everything living downstream.
Impacts are short-term and long-term — local, regional and within the corporate marketplace. Given the range and complexity of repercussions, land use decision-making requires experience and resources not readily available to county officials.
Plus that, when well over two-thirds of the land in question — some say more than 90 percent — is owned by out-of-state timber and development corporations with the wherewithal to purchase influence, self-appointments without legislative oversight are a recipe for confusion and corruption.
County commissioner races could be bought and paid for by large corporations that would like an advocate on the LURC board. This is a major conflict of interest.
Under these circumstances, the task of managing land use planning in the UT could prove dizzying to county commissioners who have no experience in land use planning.
The second provision that makes many of us shudder allows counties to “opt-out” of LURC oversight altogether, starting in 2017.
This would surely result in a lack of regional planning, differing standards for land use across counties, unpredictability for applicants, and costs to counties associated with planning and legal services. Even worse, it’s a provision that essentially abolishes LURC, one county at a time.
But perhaps most concerning and odd, is that, overall, the proposed bill â if the majority report is passed in the Legislature — would require a mix of agencies to oversee differing facets and degrees of planning and permitting.
For example, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) would pick up the larger projects, the Department of Forestry would take over forestry permitting, counties would oversee small projects and LURC would continue oversight on medium-sized projects.
Does this really represent an act to minimize red tape? And does DEP ( having lost many experienced staff in the last year) have the person-power (or expertise) to enforce site law?
Despite these problematic provisions and the unwieldy mix of agencies and commissions, my deepest concern with this bill is the way these reforms would operate in conjunction with other legislative changes being voted on this month.
How would LD 1810, a regulatory takings bill, or LD 1853, a proposed open pit mining bill in Aroostook County, play out with LURC being radically disempowered? It feels like a nightmare in the making.
An argument made by proponents of minimizing LURC’s authority has been that resident land owners should decide what happens on their land. Given a few environmental regulations, I would agree.
But the relevant landowners in the North Woods (90 percent) are non- resident resource extraction and development corporations, whose sole purpose is profit, not sustaining Maine’s quality of life, tourism economy, and hunting and recreational industries, all of which thrive on Maine’s natural heritage.
A free-for-all in road building — for logging, mining, resorts or water extraction — minus the appropriate shoreland protections, for example, could quickly fragment this state’s treasure, and quickly send sediment down rivers that are finally showing signs of real recovery, all for short term gain made by out-of-state entities.
For those of us who have lived in other parts of the country and have witnessed the ruin of large forests and watersheds, a weakened Land Use Regulation Commission makes no long-term economic sense for Mainers.
The North Woods is the remaining truth of Maine’s faltering brand, our very own environmental and economic engine. Please ask your legislators to vote against the majority report on LD 1798.
Laura Sewall is the director of the Bates-Morse Mountain Conservation Area and a resident of Phippsburg.