AUGUSTA — Northern Maine needs less restrictive regulation in the unorganized territory to give it a better chance to attract jobs and other development, members of a group exploring changes to the Land Use Regulation Commission told lawmakers Thursday.

What a retooled LURC — or panel with a new less politically charged name — will look like, is still very much up in the air, Department of Conservation Commissioner Bill Beardsley told members of the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee. Beardsley is chairman of a 13-member group charged with making recommendations for changes to the oversight system.

“I have optimism that we are moving toward moderate areas of consensus,” he said.

The definition of moderate is of concern to environmental groups and many Democrats who earlier this year fought legislation that would have scrapped LURC entirely. As a compromise, the Legislature passed a bill to create the Commission on Reform of the Governance of Land Use Planning in the Unorganized Territory.

Then, when members of the group were named, several environmental organizations complained that it was weighted too heavily with people who would want to eliminate LURC. Republicans argue that LURC hasn’t worked properly for years, neither for people who live in the area, nor for businesses looking to develop it.

Beardsley said everyone in the group agrees there’s a need to continue to require planning, zoning and permitting in the area. But the group — which has two more public listening sessions planned for November — has yet to agree on just what form it will take.

At issue is how to thoughtfully manage the 10.4 million-acre area — the largest contiguous undeveloped tract in the Northeast, larger than New Hampshire and Connecticut combined. The state-run commission was created in 1971 in response to a development boom in the late 1960s.

Because the unorganized territory is sparsely populated — 12,500 people live there at last count — the state set up the oversight panel because there were no local governments to do it.

The state law passed 40 years ago is now outdated and has been strictly interpreted by state officials as “solidly on the environmental protection side,” said Sarah Medina of Dixmont, one of the members of the commission looking to recommend reforms.

“We really need to focus on regional and local needs,” she said.

But not too local, said Greenville Town Manager Gary Lamb, who serves with Medina on the reform commission.

He’s concerned that if planning and zoning decisions end up at the county level, it could dramatically change the shoreline around Greenville’s best asset — Moosehead Lake. One side of the lake is in Somerset County, while the other is in Piscataquis County.

He wants at least some oversight to stay at the state level.

Complaints about LURC stem back several years and resurfaced again last year during the GOP gubernatorial primary.

Several candidates, including Gov. Paul LePage, criticized LURC for taking too long to make decisions, particularly with regard to a development proposal from Plum Creek Timber Co., one of the largest private landowners in the state. In 2005, the company first approached the state about getting land it owned in the unorganized territory rezoned for residential homes and resorts.

Four years later — after several contentious public hearings and revisions — the company got approval to develop 16,900 acres over 30 years with 821 residential units and two resorts. It also agreed not to develop more than 390,000 acres.

While some Republicans believe Plum Creek deserved a faster process, Pete Didisheim, lead lobbyist for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said the Plum Creek application has no bearing on other projects or the development of the region as a whole.

“It’s a big mistake to think Plum Creek can be generalized across all of LURC’s behavior,” he said, noting that it was the largest proposed development in the state at the time. “Scapegoating LURC for the problems of the Northern Maine economy is a fundamental flaw.”

Dismantling the current system could lead to 12-lot subdivisions scattered across the state, which would increase the demand for schools, roads, power, ambulances and garbage pickup, he said. In addition, he’s worried that those who enjoy the outdoors will lose access to remote ponds if the area is  developed.

On the other side, those who live in northern Maine have struggled for years with the regulations, and the regulators, who work for the commission, said Duane Lander, who lives north of Greenville and is a member of the group charged with making recommendations to change the oversight structure.

“If you want to get tomatoes thrown at you, you ought to go to northern Maine and mention the Land Use Regulation Commission,” he said.

Lander said people who live in the unorganized territories want to regulate themselves. They won’t destroy the environment they all love, he said.

He said the people up there say they need economic help.

Nancy Smith, executive director of GrowSmart Maine, has seen the issue from both sides. A former Democratic state lawmaker who served on the Agriculture committee, she also worked in northern Maine as a forester. GrowSmart, the group she now leads, advocates responsible development.

“How do we adequately balance the need for a robust economy there and the need to protect the natural resources that make that such an amazing place?” she said.

Susan Cover — 620-7015
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