10 million acres in Maine land at issue
AUGUSTA — The highly charged debate over how to manage 10 million acres in Maine’s unorganized territories returned to the State House on Thursday, with supporters of a reform bill wanting more local control and opponents worrying about unfettered development.
At issue is land use in the largest block of forestland east of the Mississippi River. The area has the “highest concentration of remote ponds and high quality lakes in the Northeast,” according to The Nature Conservancy. It’s also used by the forest products industry.
Some of the people who live there told legislators Thursday that Maine’s Land Use Regulation Commission is dictatorial and dysfunctional. One woman said she can’t get permission to put in a sink for her paint brushes because of the commission’s rules.
State Rep. Herb Clark, D-Millinocket, said while big corporations can afford to hire people to help them navigate the process, average citizens get in trouble if they move a rock.
“The poor people I represent come out on the short end of the stick,” he said.
To address some of those concerns, the Legislature formed a study panel last year to look for ways to improve the 40-year-old commission.
About 100 people packed two State House hearing rooms Thursday to testify on L.D. 1798, a bill to create the Maine Land Use Planning Commission, with six members appointed by counties in the area and three appointed by the governor.
The Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee will vote on the bill in the coming days.
Under the bill, counties would be allowed to opt out in 2015 if they show they have comprehensive plans, county charters and money to pay for planning, permitting and enforcement.
Those provisions — allowing counties to opt out and to appoint commission members without legislative approval — proved to be the most controversial aspects of the bill.
Tom Lizotte, chairman of the Piscataquis County commissioners, said it would be a mistake to “fill the planning commission with local politicians.”
And Nancy Smith, executive director of GrowSmart Maine, said she supports much of the bill but the opt-out provision is unnecessary.
“With county representatives to comprise six of nine seats, there is no need to provide an exit strategy from a structure in which counties will hold majority representation,” she said.
Maine Conservation Commissioner Bill Beardsley, who was chairman of the task force that developed the recommendations, said the group compromised on many issues. He said a retooled planning commission would address poverty and economic development problems in the unorganized territories.
“I sincerely believe we can have a 21st century natural-resource economy,” he said. “Ecotourism and conservation are an integral part of that.”