The Universal Notebook: Lurching toward LURC reform

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Wow, that was close. And fast.

As part of its wholesale assault on anything or everything that might stand in the way of business doing whatever it darn pleases in Maine, the new Republican majority in Augusta drew a bead on the Land Use Regulation Commission last week. It proposed eliminating the body that has regulated the unorganized territories for 40 years and handing its authority over to a bunch of county commissioners.

Now there’s a lousy idea, but it was one of Gov. Paul Lepage’s campaign promises, so, as bad as it is, we should have expected it. Cooler GOP heads apparently prevailed however, because LD 1534, a bill that had Senate President Kevin Raye (R-Raye’s Mustard) salivating at the prospect of eliminating LURC, crashed and burned in the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee.

Committee co-Chairman Sen. Roger Sherman, R-Houlton, explained, “There is no doggone way we are going to do it in the time we have left.”

LURC is reviled by everyone who wants to see more development in the unorganized territory and North Maine Woods. Of course, it’s also reviled by everyone who doesn’t want to see the 1,000 new homes and two resorts that LURC gave Plum Creek permission to build before a Maine Superior Court judge sent the plan back to the commission for failure to follow the public review process.

So while LURC reconsiders Plum Creek, the state Legislature will reconsider LURC.

Good idea. Cooler heads. Because LURC probably does need some restructuring.

LURC is a seven-member citizen board, four members of which must have demonstrated expertise in forestry, fish and wildlife, business and industry, and conservation. Two members must reside within LURC jurisdiction, the unorganized territories. But Orlando Delogu, emeritus professor at the University of Maine Law School, believes LURC “may today be better served by a three-member full-time board along the lines of Maine’s (Public Utilities Commission).”

I agree. The PUC’s professional model makes more sense than letting county commissioners (who have no money, no mechanism, and no expertise) manage 10 million acres. But before we can even start down the road to reform, we’ll need to overcome the strange, but widely accepted notion that only people who live in the unorganized territory should have any say about what happens there.

There are only about 9,000 people living within LURC jurisdiction. The idea that we would allow less than 1 percent of Maine’s citizens to control the fate of 50 percent of the state is patently absurd. You might just as well let moose vote. There are more of them than there are people.

Still, when I attended LURC’s Plum Creek hearings in Portland, I heard that idea time and again – none of our business down here in Cumberland County what they do up there in Moosehead.

Well, Mr. & Mrs. Greenville, you don’t live in the unorganized territory any more than I do. There is statewide jurisdiction rather than local jurisdiction because there is no local government. That’s why it’s called unorganized territory.

Some folks seem to think turning the North Maine Woods into toilet paper is its highest and best use. Some seem to think a suburb of seasonal homes makes sense. Others would prefer to see the landscape preserved so that future generations can see what the natural world used to be.

Whatever its fate, we all live downstream of the North Maine Woods. What happens in the unorganized territory will have an impact on the quality of the environment and the quality of life for people all over Maine and beyond. That’s why the future of the unorganized territory is not just the business of the temporary corporate landowners, not just that of the current local residents, and certainly not that of county governments. It’s everybody’s business.

Yes, it’s mostly private property, but, whether LePage and his tea partiers like it or not, private property everywhere is subject to regulations that protect the public interest. That’s why we need LURC.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.