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Land-use panel looks at vast portion of state  

Unorganized territories’ future will be focus of series of workshops starting today

The future of half of Maine is up for discussion at a series of workshops being held from Millinocket to Portland.

The Land Use Regulation Commission, which serves as the planning board for the unorganized territories, is gathering public feedback as it prepares to revise its comprehensive land-use plan.

Feedback from the workshops will be used to revise the draft plan. Once those revisions are made, the plan will go back before the public in a series of hearings before the finished plan goes to the governor sometime next year.

Comprising roughly 10.5 million acres – just over half of the state – the unorganized territories have long been both a working forest and a mecca for sportsmen and nature lovers, who have traditionally had access to the privately owned land.

In recent decades, however, the unorganized territories have come under increasing pressure from developers large and small.

Timber company Plum Creek has proposed two resorts and more than 900 house lots in the Moosehead Lake region. Development on a smaller scale is putting homes into parts of the unorganized territories that have always been untouched by development.

A draft comprehensive plan that highlights wilderness sprawl as a chief concern is already proving controversial with foresters and other landowners who fear it will put new restrictions on how land is used and developed.

Other issues the new plan will address include new commercial uses of the unorganized territories, including wind farms and large resorts.

Eliza Townsend, deputy commissioner of the Department of Conservation, told the editorial board of the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel Monday that it is important that the new comprehensive land- use plan recognize the changes happening in the unorganized territories.

It is also important, she said, that a public dialogue take place about those changes and how they affect the unorganized territories.

“The question that we have to ask ourselves is what is it about it that we value and what do we want it to look like in the future?” said Townsend.

One issue is the dispersion of new development, she said.

Since the Land Use Regulation Commission was created in 1971, more than 70 percent of all new dwellings in the unorganized territories have been built on lots that were not reviewed through the commission’s subdivision process.

Those lots bypassed the subdivision process because they were created before 1971, or because of exemptions to the review process.

Without some change to those exemptions, to a large degree, the commission will not be able to control further growth in the unorganized territories, said Townsend.

Other issues that the new plan will face include more demand for commercial or industrial uses in the unorganized territory, including wind farms and commercial water extraction, and balancing motorized and non-motorized recreational use.

James Cote, communication director for the Maine Forest Products Council, said his hope is the new plan will accommodate a variety of uses in the unorganized territories, as did the previous comprehensive plan, adopted in 1997.

All- terrain vehicle users, snowmobilers and hunters contribute a great deal to the economy of northern Maine, as does the forest products industry, said Cote.

“Our fear is that this plan will focus so much on primitive recreation and limiting development that it won’t encourage development in appropriate areas,” Cote said.

The language in the draft of the new comprehensive plan is worrisome for landowners and the forest products industry in general, Cote said.

Unnecessary restrictions could hurt the local economy and also upset a balance that is working for both landowners and recreational users.

“You can’t make 100 percent of the people happy 100 percent of the time, but I think that the people who use that land routinely are happy with the access that they are provided and they are happy with the resources that are there,” he said.

Diano Circo, north woods policy advocate for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said however that this new plan incorporates findings based on new data that better defines exactly where development is taking place.

It is not just the number of homes and camps that are being built, it is where they are located, said Circo.

Many of the new camps are also much larger than traditional hunting or fishing camps and they are located in very remote areas that are far from important services like fire or ambulance services.

The development of those homes threatens to cause an economic drain to towns or counties that will have to provide them with services.

The other major issue is the threat of a death by a million cuts of the character of a unique place, said Circo.

With the encroachment of development, unique remote areas are becoming more urbanized and that threatens traditional uses including hunting and fishing, as well as the livelihoods of guides who take people to unspoiled areas.

The north woods is a place where long backpacking trips and canoe trips through remote areas are possible, said Circo. It is also one of the last strongholds of native brook trout in the eastern United States.

“All these things are combined to create what is really a unique place,” he said.

As new pressures mount from residential development and commercial development, the commission needs to address these issues, he said.

“The tools don’t really exist in the current (comprehensive land use plan) to grapple with these things in a good way,” said Circo.

Alan Crowell

Morning Sentinel

29 April 2008

This article is the work of the source indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.

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