PHIPPSBURG — The bill initially proposed to reform the Land Use Regulation Commission made many of us shudder.

At the public hearing before the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Forestry and Conservation in February, the hearing room overflowed with people wanting to speak in opposition to L.D. 1798 – An Act to Reform Land Use Planning in the Unorganized Territories. They filled every chair and bit of standing room, overflowed into the hallway and ended up waiting in a large spare room, four floors below.

Although I waited nearly seven hours for three minutes of airtime, what I heard was far more significant than anything that could be said.

I heard a love of the outdoors voiced all day long, a resounding respect for our natural resources, and the wisdom gained from practical experience in land use planning and law. I also heard the voice of consensus grow stronger and more resolute with every passing hour. By late afternoon, the collective voice was focused with laser-like intensity on two problematic provisions:

n The first provision would have allowed northern counties to opt out of LURC’s jurisdiction, starting in 2017. This provision has since been removed from the bill, thanks to a cohort of 10 Republicans in the House of Representatives who refused to support the original bill, including my representative, Kim Olsen, R-Phippsburg.

As a result of their good work, the Agriculture Committee unanimously approved L.D. 1798, demonstrating bipartisan support for the amended bill. This is heartening for its bipartisanship, the good stewardship it implies and the apparent recognition of public interest — but there is more.

n The second provision that was widely opposed at the public hearing would have allowed county commissioners to appoint themselves to LURC. The amended bill is not much different: It would allow a county commissioner to appoint another county commissioner to LURC, and for county commissioners to simultaneously serve as LURC commissioners and county commissioners.

This is an odd provision, given that good land use planning requires specific knowledge. Land use decisions carry economic, legal and environmental consequences by affecting profits, soils, water quality and the overall health of everything living downstream. Impacts are short-term and long-term; local, regional and within the corporate marketplace.

Given the range and complexity of repercussions, land use decision-making requires experience and resources not available to county officials.

Furthermore, when well over two-thirds of the 10.3 million acres in question (some say more than 90 percent) is owned by out-of-state timber and development corporations with the wherewithal to purchase influence, such appointments are a recipe for confusion and corruption.

County commissioner races could be strategized, bought and paid for by large land-owning corporations that would benefit from having an advocate on the Land Use Regulation Commission. In my mind (and in that of many others), the provision codifies a conflict of interest.

Perhaps most concerning and odd is that, overall, the bill would require a mix of agencies to oversee differing facets and degrees of planning and permitting.

For example, the Department of Environmental Protection would pick up the larger projects, the Department of Forestry would take over forestry permitting, counties would oversee small projects and LURC would continue oversight of medium-sized projects.

Does this really represent an act to minimize red tape? And does the DEP (having lost many staff and much morale in the last year) have the person-power (or expertise) to enforce site law?

Despite the proposed composition of LURC and the unwieldy mix of agencies and commissions, my deepest concern with this bill is the way these reforms would operate in conjunction with other legislative changes being voted on during this session. How would L.D. 1810, a regulatory takings bill, or L.D. 1853, a proposed open pit mining bill in Aroostook County (but applicable to all of Maine), play out with LURC’s being quite radically disempowered? It feels like a nightmare in the making.

Although the LURC reform bill is considerably better than what was originally proposed at the start of the legislative session, I have remaining concerns that the bill will politicize and decentralize LURC. Allowing county commissioners to simultaneously serve as LURC commissioners is a major conflict of interest.

The unorganized territories – the iconic and real “North Woods” – are the remaining truth of Maine’s faltering brand. LURC should play a central role in protecting the North Woods, and although I thank the Legislature at large for maintaining LURC’s jurisdiction, the commissioners’ duty is to protect Maine’s resources, and to represent the interests of Maine’s people.

 

– Special to the Telegram