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AUGUSTA, Maine — Lawmakers heard hours of passionate testimony Thursday on the economic and cultural importance of Maine’s vast, undeveloped forests as they began work on a bill that could affect planning and permitting on nearly half of the acreage in the state.
To those who helped craft the compromise, the proposal to reform Maine’s Land Use Regulation Commission offers politically tangible fixes to a state agency in need of better balance between economic and environmental interests.
Others, however, decried the LURC bill as either a disguised attempt to dismantle the agency or yet another example of government intrusion on the rights of private landowners.
“The result would be a LURC that would be bigger, stronger and meaner,” said Roger Ek of Lee, one of about 100 people who signed up to testify.
The bill, LD 1798, was crafted by a task force that spent several months studying LURC and possible improvements. Recognizing the passions behind Maine’s regulatory activities on 10.5 million acres of private land, Washington County Commissioner and task force member Chris Gardner urged lawmakers to support a compromise forged by “months of not talking at each other but with each other.”
“We have to leave the confines of our respective beliefs and find compromise in the middle of the road,” said Gardner, who in the past supported abolishing LURC.
The proposal now pending with lawmakers would make several key changes to the agency that oversees Maine’s Unorganized Territory. Arguably the biggest of those would be the makeup of the renamed Maine Land Use Planning Commission.
Currently, all seven commissioners are nominated by the governor and vetted by the Legislature. LD 1798 recommends that county commissioners from the counties with the most acreage in the Unorganized Territory — or their designees — would fill six of the nine proposed commission seats, with the governor nominating the remaining three.
Responding to demands for more local control, the bill also would allow counties to take over some of the permitting responsibilities handled by LURC. The commission would focus more on developing regional comprehensive plans and would hand over permitting for commercial wind power and other large projects to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.
Former assistant attorney general Jeff Pidot of Brunswick, who advised LURC on legal issues for years, warned that the proposed shift to county commissioners could render the agency “ineffective and legally and programmatically dysfunctional.”
“The scattering of LURC programs across counties will inevitably lead to unfairness, inefficiency and ineffectiveness,” said Pidot.
County commissioners were actually divided on the proposal.
Paul Underwood, a county commissioner from Aroostook, supported the move to give counties more control and predicted it would help support economic development in the poorest parts of the state.
“We need to develop and encourage sound economic development rather than throw up road blocks,” Underwood said.
Thomas Lizotte, chairman of the county commissioners in Piscataquis County, said he would not support allowing people in his position to appoint themselves or their pals to the future LURC without legislative review.
“I find that puzzling,” Lizotte said.
Franklin County Commissioner Fred Hardy said the task force appears to have given little to no consideration for the rights of the landowners who pay taxes on land in the UT and allow the public to recreate there. But Hardy’s colleague, Franklin County Commissioner Gary McGrane, submitted testimony in opposition to the membership as well as a process for allowing counties to “opt out” of LURC.
That opt-out clause is arguably the most contentious aspect of the bill.
Counties would only be allowed to withdraw after three years and would first have to adopt a comprehensive plan and create the regulatory system able to administer LURC functions, including a planning board and appeals board.
Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers testified against the opt-out clause, which they predicted would weaken the commission. Supporters, however, said the option was needed to keep in check an agency that some accuse of stifling economic development.
Crucially, the proposal does not recommend the abolishment of LURC — an outcome that disappointed some who testified Thursday.
Ek of Lee said people in his area are upset with the recommendations, which he said will only allow the commission to further “consolidate power” at the expense and liberties of landowners.
Likewise, Anthony Soychak of Rockwood, who claims it took him 15 years to obtain a LURC permit, described LURC and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as being composed of “tyrannical people.”
Others painted a completely different picture of LURC and the commission’s future under the reform proposals.
“This bill is an attempt to gut LURC by 1,000 cuts,” said Bob Guethlen, a resident of Tomhegan Township on Moosehead Lake. He described the proposed changes as promoting an ideological political agenda and said the result will be a “great big rubber stamp” for applicants coming before a board composed of largely county commissioners.
Former Sen. Howard Trotsky of Bangor, meanwhile, pointed out that less than 1 percent of Maine’s population lives in the 10.5 million-acre UT but all of the state have an interest in the “treasure” contained in the natural areas that are key to Maine’s economy and identity.
“This bill will weaken LURC and, at this time, we don’t need to weaken LURC,” Trotsky said.
The public hearing was still going at roughly 8 p.m. Thursday, six hours after beginning. The Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee is tentatively scheduled to hold a work session on the bill beginning at 1 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 23.