AUGUSTA – Republican lawmakers are retreating from their attempt to abolish the state commission that manages development in Maine’s vast unorganized territories.

At least for now.

Rather than eliminate the commission and turn its duties over to counties, Republicans on the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee passed an amendment Thursday that would form a group to study the matter and report back to the Legislature next year.

While intended to be a compromise, the amendment failed to pick up any Democratic support on the panel, ensuring a partisan fight in the House and Senate over the future of the Land Use Regulation Commission.

Democrats, who worry that the study group would be packed with people who are determined to abolish the commission, want to establish a study group that allows for more diverse points of view.

Republicans say they have compromised enough.

The bill, L.D. 1534, has been one of the most contentious of this legislative session. The debate in committee has been rancorous, and the bitter feelings continued Thursday as lawmakers bickered over small wording changes.

At one point, Rep. Jeff McCabe, a Democrat from Skowhegan, accused Republicans of laughing at him as he introduced an amendment.

Sen. Roger Sherman, R-Houlton, who co-chairs the committee, cut off debate by telling Democrats that Republicans would not compromise.

“The line has been drawn in the sand, Jeff,” Sherman told McCabe.

The committee then voted 7-5 along party lines to adopt the Republicans’ amendment, which was written with the involvement of Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry.

At issue is how to manage development in a jurisdiction that covers more than half of Maine, encompasses more than 10.4 million acres of forested land and is the largest contiguous undeveloped area in the Northeast.

The Land Use Regulation Commission has managed development of that land since the Legislature created it in 1971 to serve as the region’s planning and zoning authority.

Many Republicans, including Raye and Gov. Paul LePage, view the commission as an impediment to economic development. They say land-use decisions should be made at the local level.

Democrats say they want to reform the commission rather than abolish it. They argue that transferring land-use management to the counties, which now lack staffing and regulatory boards to do the job, would increase county taxes. They note that LURC has approved more than 91 percent of the permits sought since 2001.

The bill endorsed Thursday would create a 13-member study group with members appointed by LePage, Raye and Speaker of the House Robert Nutting, R-Oakland. The members would include landowners, county officials and a few interest groups, including representatives of sportsmen and the tourism industry.

In the bill, LURC is identified only in terms of creating a transition period for its elimination and completing its pending work before transferring its duties to other agencies.

In the amendment proposed by McCabe, the study group would have been responsible for reforming LURC. It would have included one county commissioner appointed by the House minority leader, Emily Cain, D-Orono.

Eliminating LURC would bring the biggest change to Maine’s North Woods in 40 years, said George Smith, former director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine. Smith opposes the elimination of LURC.

While Democrats don’t like the proposed study group, they at least blocked the effort to abolish LURC this year. “They dodged a bullet,” Smith said. “That’s huge.”

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

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