AUGUSTA, Maine – Members of a legislative committee on Thursday unanimously endorsed a bill to reform Maine’s Land Use Regulation Commission after lawmakers reached an accord to remove the most contentious aspect of the measure.
The bill, LD 1798, will replace the seven-member slate of commissioners nominated by the governor with a nine-member commission of which eight members will be county commissioners or their designees. All nine members still would have to be vetted by the Legislature, however.
Earlier this month, members of the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee had endorsed competing measures after deadlocking on the issue of whether counties should be able to withdraw from LURC if local officials were unhappy with the state’s oversight.
But the committee held onto the bill and, after lengthy behind-the-scenes negotiations, lawmakers agreed to drop the “opt out” option. The result was a 12-0 vote in support of the bill with one member absent.
Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry, called the unanimous vote an “important step forward in the effort to bring greater local control and accountability to land use planning in Maine’s Unorganized Territory.” Raye had been a vocal proponent of LURC reform, even sponsoring a bill last year to dismantle the agency and hand over most responsibilities to counties.
“I appreciate the willingness of stakeholders and legislators with diverse views, as well as the LePage administration, to do the hard work necessary to build consensus,” Raye said in a statement. “This result shows what can happen when people are willing to listen and respond to each other respectfully in order to bridge differences.”
LURC is responsible for permitting, zoning and planning on more than 10 million acres, or nearly half of the state of Maine. But the agency has long been accused by some landowners of stymieing economic development and putting too much emphasis on protecting natural areas. Those criticisms gave rise to a task force whose work formed the basis of LD 1798.
Under the proposed changes, county commissioners in each of the eight counties with the most land within the Unorganized Territory would nominate one member. Supporters claim that change will ensure localities have more say on decisions.
The bill also would:
• Transfer some minor permitting responsibilities to counties.
• Have the Maine Department of Environmental Protection handle all commercial wind power projects.
• Relocate some central office LURC staff out of Augusta to areas closer to the Unorganized Territory.
• Direct LURC to work with counties to develop regional planning and zoning.
Democratic committee members had been the most vocal in opposition to the opt-out clause, which they dismissed as a way to gradually weaken the agency. Supporters of the opt-out clause, however, said the stipulations counties would need to meet before withdrawing would be set so high that few if any would likely attempt it.
But several Republican lawmakers from counties with significant acreage in LURC territory had also opposed the withdrawal option. And in the end, it appeared that legislative leaders may have counted the votes.
The bill now heads to the full House and Senate for consideration. Because it may arrive with unanimous committee support, however, the bill could avoid floor debate.
Environment Maine, one of the groups heavily involved in the debate over LURC, said in a statement Thursday evening that they were “thrilled that the worst part was thrown out as a result of the public outcry.
“But we continue to have concerns about the makeup of the new Commission and the standards that will guide their decisions,” the group said. “We’re committed to closely watchdog the changes as they are implemented and to continue to fight to protect the North Woods for future generations.”