Good afternoon Sen. Sherman, Rep. Edgecomb and members of the Committee. My name is Lisa Pohlmann. I am a resident of Jefferson. I am the Executive Director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine. I am here today on behalf of the 12,000 members and supporters of the Natural Resources Council of Maine in opposition to LD 1798.
The area overseen by LURC is about 10.4 million acres — half of the state of Maine. Only about 12,000 residents live there, most clustered in the plantations and other small pockets of development. Most of the 10.4 million acres is uninhabited and owned by out-of-state investors, real estate developers, and corporations.
LD 1798 has several provisions we support. Some of the provisions are steps towards improving LURC’s ability to effectively serve the people of Maine in fulfilling its statutory mission. Some of those include increased regional participation in partnership with LURC in regional planning and zoning, and increased staff and commission training.
However, there are a number of provisions in LD 1798, which we do not support:
1. County Opt Out — The bill would allow counties to opt out – in a few years – of the unified system that LURC provides. This would thwart the fundamental purpose of LURC to provide a consistent and unified system of planning, permitting, zoning and enforcement for the Unorganized Townships (UT). It is the equivalent of abolishing LURC one county at a time.
Land use planning, permitting, zoning and enforcement divided up among multiple counties could lead to inconsistent standards, confusion for the public, and delays for projects located in more than one county. That fragmentation of land use authority could lead to the degradation or loss of the forest which has supported our forest products industry and our forest-based tourism industry for decades. Maine people, and millions of visitors, have enjoyed priceless recreation opportunities in this iconic resource, the largest remaining intact forest in the east.
Additionally, allowing counties to opt out would also be very expensive. An analysis of the potential tax implications of the opt out provision indicates that it would likely cost twice as much for the counties to provide the same service LURC provides in its current form. County residents would be footing that bill. At a time when we are faced with huge budget deficits and belt tightening throughout government, it does not make sense to be increasing the size and responsibilities of county government.
2. Commission Membership —Allowing locally elected County Commissioners to appoint themselves to the statewide LURC Commission with no review could lead to conflicts of interest. Locally elected officials are subject to local pressures while LURC Commissioners have a duty (more like a judge) to apply the state law to the facts of specific applications. No other state regulatory board allows locally elected officials to appoint themselves. County Commissioners do not necessarily have experience or training in land use issues. We recommend that County Commissioners and others make recommendations to the governor for nomination and vetting through the normal legislative process.
3. Transferring All Large Project Permitting to DEP — The proposal to transfer permitting of large projects to DEP is filled with problems, unaddressed issues, and unintended consequences. Under LURC, shoreland zoning regulations, wetland regulations and project permitting are all rolled into one application process. Not so under this bill. The bill would require many applicants who currently benefit from LURC’s “one stop shopping” to apply for multiple permits from different agencies.
Historically, LURC has administered its regulations consistent with its primary goal of maintaining the forest products industry. The forest products industry and forest-based tourism in the North Woods raise issues not generally relevant in the populated portions of the state. DEP has very limited experience reviewing the impacts of development on the forest products industry and undeveloped, scenic character of the North Woods which is critical to forest-based tourism businesses.
Time does not permit us to explore the myriad other issues raised by this bill including:
- The loss of legislative oversight by making all rules minor technical rules;
- Changes in the purpose statement confusing the responsibilities of LURC and regional economic development commissions;
- Allowing reduced protection for existing natural, recreational or historic resources in counties that opt out;
- Granting counties broad ordinance adopting powers; and
- Granting LURC broad powers to delegate unspecified permit review and enforcement activities to counties which have not opted out.
Before you adopt any bill to reform LURC, we urge you to delete any provisions allowing counties to opt out, reinstate the authority of the governor and the Legislature to appoint members to the LURC Commission, and solve the multiple problems associated with the proposal to transfer permitting of large projects to DEP in order to avoid complete chaos and paralysis in the permitting system for the North Woods. We also urge that you address the other problems raised above and we would be happy to provide further information in that process.
Thank you very much for your attention.