It’s no secret Gov. Paul LePage wants to abolish the Land Use Regulation Commission, which oversees 10.4 million acres of Maine’s North Woods — an area comprising half the state. It was one of his campaign pledges.
He’s also called for not less than 30 percent of the LURC’s jurisdiction to be zoned for development, which would open up three million acres (or an area the size of Connecticut). He’s also called for amending LURC statutes to remove the prohibition on approving projects unless “adequate provision has been made for fitting the proposal harmoniously into the existing natural environment in order to ensure there will be no undue adverse effect on existing uses, scenic character, and natural and historic resources…”
One way or another — by abolishing LURC, reducing its jurisdiction by one third or crippling its regulatory authority — Gov. LePage’s vision for Maine’s North Woods represents a radical break with some 40 years of land-use planning that has benefited both our tourism and forestry economies by preventing sprawl in our wilderness areas.
Not surprisingly, there’s been a strong pushback to these proposals — with 54 people speaking in opposition and 28 in support at last month’s public hearing on abolishing LURC.
Among the concerns voiced: Shutting down LURC would merely shift its planning and regulatory duties to the counties, thereby raising their costs; permitting might become even slower if counties don’t provide adequate resources; it would “result in expensive, inefficient and unpredictable land use regulation throughout the unorganized territory.”
Even Senate President Kevin Raye, who shares LePage’s views on LURC, couldn’t muster enough votes at the committee level for LD 1534 (his bill to abolish LURC); instead, the focus shifted to creating a study commission to look at “reform of the governance of land use planning in the unorganized territory.”
At face value, that seems fair enough. Many LURC supporters acknowledge there’s plenty of room for improvement in its dealings with residents of the unorganized territory as well as its oversight of ordinances and rules related to development.
But a June 1 draft of the Republican majority report on the study commission’s membership, duties and deadlines suggests a rigged process to arrive at the outcome desired by both LePage and Raye — the abolishment of LURC.
As spelled out in the majority report,
LePage gets to hand-pick four members of the 13-person study commission, with Raye picking another four members, and House Speaker Robert W. Nutting picking four more. The 13th member would be Conservation Commissioner Bill Beardsley (or his designee).
LePage gets to designate the chairman and vice chairman.
The risk of proceeding in this fashion, of course, is that it will inevitably call into question whatever recommendations might come out of the study commission as being predetermined … the equivalent of a winning hand that’s played knowingly because it’s been dealt from a stacked deck.
If LePage and Raye truly had confidence in their position — and were open to other solutions than the draconian one they favor — they’d embrace the recommendations of the minority report filed by Democrats in response to the study commission amendment. That report calls for a bipartisan mix of senators and representatives to ensure a balance of perspectives. Proscribed duties are more extensive and explicit, with a focus on reforming LURC to improve it, rather than tossing it aside.
Certainly, a decision affecting half of the state — a region whose pristine lakes, ponds and wild beauty draws tourists from across the nation and the world — warrants a study group comprised of elected legislators.
It’s not a job that should be outsourced by those who have given us ample reasons to believe they want that study to support their preferred outcome.