By Kevin Miller
AUGUSTA – A handful of landowners and real estate brokers on Monday urged lawmakers to intervene in a regulatory dispute over a 2001 law that could nullify hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of undeveloped lots in the Unorganized Territory.
Back in 2001, the Legislature closed a loophole in Maine law that essentially exempted development on lots measuring 40 acres or more from the Land Use Regulation Commission’s subdivision process. At the time, regulators said the loophole was encouraging unchecked sprawl through the Unorganized Territory’s 10 million acres.
The 2001 law required landowners who already had divided their land on paper and submitted plans to the registry of deeds, but had not yet developed the property, to submit certified land plans to LURC. Otherwise, residential buildings no longer would be allowed on the hypothetical lots.
Some landowners filed the plans with LURC. Many did not, however.
Six years later, families who bought land as an ideal place for a future camp or retirement home are finding out that LURC no longer allows development on their properties.
On Monday, some landowners and developers spoke in support of a bill, LD 471, that would force LURC to honor 40-acre lots that were drawn up before the September 2001 law change.
Canadian residents Pearline Roy and Jean-Claude Plourde purchased 80-plus acres overlooking northern Maine’s Eagle Lake in 1998 with plans of building a retirement home there. But the couple, who grew up on the Maine-Canada border, recently learned they cannot build legally on their land.
After years of working in Quebec City, Plourde said he is angered by the prospect of not being able to retire to rural Maine.
“Two to three years from now, we planned to build a house there and to live in a quiet place,” he told members of the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee.
Similarly, Tammy Lauritsen and her husband bought about 40 acres in northern Maine in 2003 with the understanding that the land could be built on because the lots were divided in 1988. The Gray couple recently was told they could not even build a storage shed on the site.
“We have a lot that has a lot less value than what we paid for it,” Lauritsen said.
Sen. Peter Mills, the bill’s sponsor, said he believes that LURC, not the Legislature, interpreted the 2001 law to apply retroactively. Mills, a Skowhegan Republican, stated that the Legislature should make that call.
“I think it affects hundreds of 40-acre lots that are out there on paper, on file” with the registry of deeds, Mills said.
Some real estate brokers who spoke Monday said thousands of lots could be affected.
LURC director Catherine Carroll said she understands property owners’ frustrations. But the reality is that the law required original landowners to submit certified land plans to LURC in order for the agency to honor those 40-acre lots carved out before 2001.
Carroll said that changing the law now to grandfather potentially thousands of lots could have a dramatic impact on development in the Unorganized Territory.
“Our main concern is that we have no way of knowing how many lots may be affected and now allowed to be developed, since this bill does not require any notification to have been done through LURC,” Carroll told the committee.
Representatives of Maine Audubon and the Natural Resources Council of Maine also spoke in opposition to the measure.
The committee took up several other controversial LURC-related bills.
Mills also is seeking legislative approval for any changes to LURC’s Comprehensive Land Use Plan. LURC staff and board members are in the middle of updating the plan, as required every 10 years.
Under current procedure, the commission holds extensive public hearings on its draft plan update before submitting it directly to the governor for approval. Mills said he believes the plan should be reviewed by the Legislature to increase accountability.
Mills also is seeking to change the mission statement of LURC to say that the commission serves the public benefit of the property owners and residents of the Unorganized Territory rather than all of the people of Maine. Mills also wants to add language acknowledging the importance of the forestry and agriculture industries.
Carroll, at least two LURC board members, and several businesses and conservation groups opposed those changes.
Less controversially, the committee heard testimony on LURC’s proposal to do away with its flat-fee system for all applications. Under the proposal, fees would vary depending on the size of the development in order to help the state recoup the costs of larger applications.
The committee has not yet scheduled a work session for the LURC-related bills.