A forum on the reform of the Maine Land Use Regulatory Commission, otherwise known as “LURC” was held on Tuesday, September 20, 2011 at the Senator Inn in Augusta, just two days before a legislative study commission was to convene meeting to review possible
legislative changes to the LURC law. The Land Use Regulatory Commission acts as the local planning and zoning board for Maine’s unorganized territories where there is no municipal government to address these important functions. The forum was held by the Maine Real Estate & Development Association, also known as MEREDA, a statewide trade organization for Maine’s real estate and development industry. Over 60 attendees packed the room for the 90 minute panel discussion. Norway Savings Bank sponsored the forum, held at the Senator Inn in Augusta.
MEREDA was compelled to convene this forum to further its mission “to promote fair and responsible development and ownership of real estate throughout the State of Maine.” Nothing short of land use planning and development in 10.4 million acres of Unorganized Territory in Maine is at stake in this debate. This land is noted as the largest contiguous undeveloped forest in the United States east of the Mississippi. About 95% of this land is privately owned.
Indicative of the timeliness and interest in this issue, more than a dozen legislators attended this off-session forum. Among them were Speaker of the House Robert Nutting (R-Oakland), House Majority Whip Andre Cushing (R- Hampden) and House Minority Whip Theresa Hayes (D-Buckfield).
The forum provided members, legislators and other interested parties the opportunity to learn about the various stakeholder interests involved and the competing governance structures and processes being proposed to govern the planning and use of this land.
Panelists included Orlando Delogu, Emeritus Professor at University of Maine School of Law; Paul Underwood, Aroostook County Commissioner; Carlisle McLean, Senior Natural Resource Policy Advisor to Governor LePage; Patrick Strauch, Executive Director of the Maine Forest Products Council; and Elizabeth Swain, President of Barton & Gingold and former LURC member and Chair. MEREDA Board member Drew Sigfridson, CBRE | The Boulos Company moderated the panel following an introduction by MEREDA Conference Committee Chair Paul Peck, Drummond & Drummond.
Much of the underlying tension with today’s LURC stems from a desire for retaining the right to develop for the Unorganized Territory. In their opening remarks, both McLean and Strauch cited the need for a governance structure that balances preservation and responsible development. Swain and Delogu noted two structural barriers to a more balanced approach to planning and development. First, Maine law declares LURC’s mission is “to preserve the land”. Second, the ex parte rule prohibits interested parties from communicating directly with commissioners which limits commissioner’s ability to gain diverse perspectives on matters at hand.
Opinions presented and questions posed reflected the complexity and number of considerations within the debate. The underlying questions reflected included:
– Who should do the planning and permit application and oversight for the unorganized territories – LURC or the County Commissioners?
– Is there a threshold size of planning and project oversight that ought to be regulated by LURC, and smaller scale planning and projects regulated by the County Commissioners?
– How can local people be more involved in the LURC planning process?
– Are the County Commissioners appropriately staffed and funded to take on additional planning or oversight responsibilities? If not, how would we ensure that they have resources for any additional responsibilities?
– Do we want uniform statewide standards for certain protections and development guidelines, ensuring consistency and predictability? If we do, who does the land use planning and who does the permit and use oversight?
– Should the Department of Environmental Protection do the permit and oversight for the Unorganized Territories? If so, do they have adequate resources?
– Would LURC staff be more responsive to local needs if it were located closer to the Unorganized Territories rather than Augusta?
On Thursday, September 22, a 13-member commission to study reforms to LURC was scheduled to convene in Bangor. Conservation Commissioner Bill Beardsley, chair of the study Commission, attended the MEREDA forum. In press coverage of the Breakfast Forum, Beardsley was cited as saying that he would be bringing a lot of what he heard at the MEREDA forum into his study commission work.