The latest proposal for development in the unorganized territory would hurt the communities it intends to help.
More than seven months ago, we wondered why state planning officials were proposing a substantial change in how development is guided in the unorganized territory – the 10 million or so acres of land, mostly in western, northern and far eastern Maine, that have no municipal government.
The Land Use Planning Commission, the planning and zoning authority for the unorganized territory, has since made slight alterations to the plan. But the central question remains.
The commission says the new rules are needed to allow for development that would be beneficial and appropriate to the rural communities that are located in and around the unincorporated areas. The blanket rule in place now – known as the “1-mile rule” – works in some places but not in others, according to the commission, and is holding back investment in areas that could use it.
The 1-mile rule is a longstanding policy that limits new housing subdivisions and commercial development to within 1 road mile of existing similar development.
Under the first version of the proposal, the commission scrapped the 1-mile limit, designating 40 “retail hubs” – towns that provide public services – and calling for development to be allowed within 10 miles of the hubs. The latest iteration has reduced that distance to 7 miles.
Residential development would be allowed on roughly 1.3 million acres now closed to it, while business development would gain about 800,000 acres.
The plan would also allow subdivisions of “kingdom lots” – lots as large as 25 acres.
Neither plan has been popular, with most speakers at public hearings coming out against significant changes to the existing rules. Opponents say the 1-mile rule, while perhaps imperfect, has worked well and, if anything, should only be tweaked, not thrown out altogether.
They say, ultimately, the proposed rule would end up harming the communities it intends to help.
They’re right. Allowing new development miles from rural communities – many of them already remote and on the far edge of where any development exists today – would raise the cost of providing the services that are inevitably called for. It would also steer development away from the service centers where it is needed – and where there is plenty of capacity.
Allowing more scattershot development could also cut up the uninterrupted forests and clutter the backwoods roads that define rural Maine. A few huge trophy homes and a scattering of new businesses would not generate enough economic activity to make it worth jeopardizing the very character of less developed parts of the state.
It is also unclear whether demand exists for the kind of development that the new rules would clear the way for – meaning there is no rush to make drastic changes.
Given all the opposition to the plan, perhaps instead the commission and other stakeholders in rural development should discuss a new vision for the unorganized territory. Such an analysis could look at regional differences within the vast unorganized territory and consider what kind of projects are viable in each – and which kinds are suitable and palatable to established communities.
For the most rural parts of rural Maine, there is a delicate balance between economic activity and the desire to maintain what makes them special. The commission’s plan doesn’t yet achieve it.