Aroostook County residents voiced their fears, frustrations and suspicions toward state regulators Sunday during a meeting on potential changes to land use policies in Maine’s vast Unorganized Territory.
The Land Use Regulation Commission is seeking feedback on proposed alterations to the planning document that guides policy decisions within the roughly 10 million acres of unincorporated regions of the state.
Roughly 50 people came to the University of Maine at Fort Kent campus to attend the first of eight workshops intended to gather feedback on the draft Comprehensive Land Use Plan, also known as the CLUP.
Many of those who spoke expressed strong concerns about language within CLUP as well as a powerful mistrust of the state agency charged with regulating the region.
“Do not underestimate the amount of anxiety and anger toward the commission that is up here,” said one speaker.
LURC staff said they need to modify the comprehensive plan to ensure that it reflects changes that have taken place within Unorganized Territory since the last update in 1997. While commercial forestry remains the economic engine of the region, much of the timberland has changed hands during the past decade. Remote areas are also increasingly eyed for wind farms or other types of development not prominent decades ago.
But LURC staff have rated wilderness sprawl – and the commission’s inability to control it – as one of the top concerns facing the jurisdiction.
About 8,800 new dwellings have been permitted by LURC since its inception in 1971. Staff said it is the location of that development, rather than the total number, and the prospect of that trend continuing unabated that is most disconcerting.
Roughly 72 percent of those 8,800 dwellings were on lots that were part of subdivisions that legally bypassed the commission’s subdivision review process that aims to keep development out of areas deemed inappropriate for growth.
“If you stretch this out for the next 10, 20, 30, 40 or 50 years, what is at risk?” said Fred Todd, manager of the commission’s planning and administration division. “Some would say nothing is at risk. We feel that a lot of the value of the northern woods is at risk.”
Because the CLUP is only a planning document, the agency would have to go through the rule-making process to make any substantial changes, and any new rules are subject to legislative approval. And it is the Legislature, not LURC, that must change subdivision policies.
The draft CLUP also does not propose specific changes but, instead, typically offers a number of options. Possible options outlined in the draft CLUP include restrictions on the type and scale of development in some areas or changes to subdivision policies.
But speakers were nonetheless skeptical of the direction of the changes, especially when it came to landowners’ ability to create new lots for camps or homes.
Anthony Hourihan, who manages the Irving Woodlands property in the region, said it was “troubling” to him that Irving – Maine’s largest landowner – has not been involved in the CLUP process.
If subdivision rights were eliminated, Hourihan said, landowners could be forced to seek other ways to get more return from their land.
Some in the audience bluntly criticized LURC’s existing policies.
Wallace Grivois from Saint David angrily predicted that the new CLUP will only result in more restrictions and fines on people struggling to make a living on their land. He said many landowners would rather risk being fined than deal with LURC regulations.
“I’m a landowner about to sell,” Grivois told the panel of LURC staff. “I’m tired of you people, your laws and regulations.”
But for the most part, Sunday’s workshop was more like a dialogue than a meeting as audience members pressed the agency’s representatives for clarification or explanation about aspects of the draft plan.
LURC staff assured the audience that they had no intention of further regulating forestry or closing large areas of the Unorganized Territory to snowmobiles, ATVs or motorized recreation. In response, speakers urged the commission to drop the use of such words as “primitive” and “backcountry” to avoid having to sort through competing interpretations.
One theme in many comments Sunday’s was that local residents feel disenfranchised.
“If there is one thing we don’t have, it is the right to vote on this as a town would,” said Gary Pelletier, a lifelong northern Maine resident. “The guy in Portland has as much say as I do.”
LURC’s next workshop will be held at 6 tonight at the Presque Isle Inn and Convention Center. A full schedule of the eight workshops is available on the LURC Web site at www.maine.gov/doc/lurc.
LURC will use comments gathered at the eight work sessions to change the draft plan. The commission will hold formal public hearings later this year before voting on a final plan and submitting it to the governor for approval.
By Kevin Miller
28 April 2008
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