During this forthcoming shortened legislative session, which is supposed to be focused on emergency legislation and the state budget, the Legislature is likely to engage in an extended debate over a complex policy area that defies easy solutions and typical partisan disagreements, just as they did last session.

During the last session, that issue was energy policy, as the Legislature grappled with the Central Maine Power corridor. On that issue, many (though not all) Republican legislators aligned themselves with the Democratic governor, Janet Mills, in support of the corridor, while many (though not all) Democratic legislators aligned against it, despite her support. That issue hasn’t entirely gone away, but this session the focus is likely to be on a different controversial area: housing policy.

There’s no doubt that housing affordability is a serious problem, especially in certain parts of the state. To begin to address the issue, the Legislature created a commission last session to study the effect of local zoning laws on housing affordability. Now, to be sure, this is often a sign not that the Legislature is taking an issue especially seriously, but that they’re trying to avoid doing so: Every session bills get turned into study commissions whose reports are then studiously ignored for years. This approach lets legislators pretend to have accomplished something but is usually nothing more than a complete waste of time and money.

There’s reason to believe, however, that this study commission may actually result in something substantive. For one, it was truly bipartisan, with legislators from both parties fully participating. Several of those legislators were members of leadership as well, including House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, and Assistant Senate Republican Leader Matt Pouliot of Augusta.

Based on the preliminary report, though, it doesn’t seem as if the commission found an easy solution to Maine’s housing problem. Instead, the majority appears poised to release a proposal that would – among other ideas – curtail local authority, limiting the ability of towns to block developments.

They’d do this by stopping towns from imposing caps on housing developments and creating a statewide appeals board that could overrule towns on these issues. If that seems like a sticking point, you’re probably right: The Maine Municipal Association, which had a representative on the commission, made it clear that it was against any proposals that would curtail local control. While it’s understandable that housing advocates are frustrated by the not-in-my-backyarders who seemingly share their concerns yet don’t want projects developed near them, curtailing Maine democracy to get their way is not a good solution. Limiting local control and creating a new statewide agency to thwart it are divisive, big-government approaches that set a terrible precedent.

The concept of a statewide appeals board is a dangerous one. Even if this iteration of such a body is limited to appealing denials of affordable housing projects, it’s easy to see the Legislature expanding its authority in the future to hear appeals of other local decisions on various projects – even ones that aren’t related to housing at all. In general, the power of municipalities shouldn’t be usurped by the state: local government, and the citizens they represent, are the best ones to decide what’s a good fit in their community. Rather than using the power of state government to run roughshod over local opinion, developers should have to make their case to the local citizenry.

Moreover, while we don’t yet know exactly how such a board might be filled, these sorts of entities are more often appointed rather than elected, making them inherently less democratic than local government. Even if they were elected, it would have to be on some sort of statewide basis, and that might completely marginalize the influence of smaller communities as they tried to make their case before the board. It’s hard to believe that any statewide board of appeals would be more interested in hearing from a few citizens and local elected officials than it would be from lobbyists and well-funded developers.

Rather than limiting the power of the people of Maine to decide what fits in their own towns, state government should be focused on giving communities incentives to do the right thing. They could do this by offering enhanced funding to towns that allow affordable housing, instead of taking away power from all municipalities because of bad decisions made by a few towns. That would be the better approach to encouraging responsible housing policy at the local level; hopefully, it’s the one the Legislature takes.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:
[email protected]
Twitter: @jimfossel


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