Most of the people who have been appointed to a panel to study the future of Maine’s Land Use Regulation Commission have already decided that the commission should be abolished, say Democrats and some environmental groups.

Rather than create an objective panel to recommend reforms, they say, Gov. Paul LePage and Republican leaders in the Legislature have created a transition team that will lead to LURC’s demise.

Republican leaders defended the appointments on Monday, saying they have chosen a diverse group of people who have useful experience in land use planning in Maine’s unorganized territories, an area that covers about half of the state.

“It is unfortunate that partisan critics would unfairly prejudge the outcome before the commission even meets,” said Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry, who appointed four of the panel’s 13 members.

For 40 years, the Land Use Regulation Commission has overseen planning and zoning for the unorganized territories. Critics say that the commission has become a barrier to economic development in the region, and that land-use decisions should be made by people who live there.

Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature clashed this spring over a GOP-backed bill that would have dismantled LURC and distributed its powers to the counties, the Maine Forest Service and the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

In the end, lawmakers created the panel to study the issue and report to the Legislature in January.

Raye, LePage and House Speaker Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, appointed the members of the study panel, except for the chairman, Conservation Commissioner William Beardsley, who was named to the committee in a bill the Legislature passed in June.

The governor’s office released the names to the media at 8:30 p.m. Friday. The timing of the press release — when the state was preoccupied with the approach of Hurricane Irene — was intended to reduce scrutiny, said Cathy Johnson, North Woods project director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

She said the committee includes five people who testified in support of the bill that would have abolished LURC: Beardsley; Hank McPherson, who is involved in the forest products industry; Sarah Medina, land-use director of a timber management holding company; Donald White, president of the Maine Forest Products Council; and Christopher Gardner, a Washington County commissioner.

“This is disappointing,” Johnson said. “I think Maine people really wanted an objective look at LURC. There are things that could be done to improve LURC. This looks like it’s on track to dismantle LURC.”

Democrats pushed for a study group that would look for ways to improve LURC, said Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, who led the Democrats’ effort to stop Republican lawmakers from eliminating the commission.

He said several of the people who have been named to the committee have been leading the charge to dismantle LURC.

“It’s hard to be so vocal and defiant on something and then sit on this objective committee,” he said.

LePage’s spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, said the governor’s office was busy with hurricane preparations Friday and couldn’t finish the press release until the end of the day. She said there was no attempt to limit scrutiny.

She said the panel is made up of people with diverse skills and backgrounds. “This is a group that is fully committed to being constructive.”

LePage has supported dismantling LURC. Last week at a town hall meeting in Presque Isle, he noted that a panel will look at land-use issues in the unorganized territories.

“It will not be in the hands of the state,” he said. “It’s going to go back likely to the counties.”

The Department of Conservation will provide staff support for the panel, which will hold at least two public “listening sessions.”

Beardsley, whom LePage chose to chair the panel, said he believes the hearings should be held in communities near the unorganized territories.

The panel must meet with the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee by Oct. 28 to provide an update on its work.

Beardsley said all of the panel’s meetings will be open to the public. Its first meeting has not yet been scheduled.

Despite his testimony in support of the bill to dismantle LURC, Beardsley said he’ll bring an open mind to the panel.

Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, who served in the Legislature when LURC was established in 1971, predicted that the panel’s recommendations won’t amount to much.

“If they have already made up their minds, it’s obviously clear as to what they will end up recommending,” he said. “It will have very little impact on the Legislature.”

The other members of the committee are: Judith Cooper East of the Washington County Council of Governments; Elbridge Cleaves, president of the Woodie Wheaton Land Trust; Somerset County Commissioner Robert Dunphy; Don Kleiner of the Maine Professional Guides Association; Greenville Town Manager Gary Lamb; Duane Lander from the Greenville area; Tom Rumpf of the Maine chapter of The Nature Conservancy; and Durward Humphrey of Benedicta Township.

 

MaineToday Media State House Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 699-6261 or at: [email protected]