Downeast Coastal Press
May 13, 2008

Down–Easters Fault LURC's Proposed Land–Use Plan Revision

Concerns Raised over Vague Terminology, Lack of Focus on Development
County Commissioners Opposed, Citing Anti–Democratic Process

By Fred Hastings

Residents of eastern Maine expressed disappointment with the Maine Land Use Regulation Commission's (LURC) proposed revision to its Comprehensive Land Use Plan (CLUP) at the last of eight statewide public forums LURC held May 8 in Machias. LURC is the state agency that develops and implements zoning and development policies in the state's unorganized territories–more than 11 million acres of land and comprising more than half of the state's land mass.

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The Machias hearing attracted approximately 60 people, most of whom voiced opposition to the draft proposal. Chief complaints addressed the preponderance of emotive language in the document and the vagueness of the terminology that opened the way for more subjective judgment on the part of the commissioners and greater restrictions on private landowners. Also cited was the apparent departure from seeking a balance between economic development and conservation objectives.

Chris Gardner, chairman of the Washington County commissioners, addressed broader political issues, indicating that over the 30 years of its existence, LURC has tended to move away from its cooperative, multi–use approach with the owners of the lands under its jurisdiction, to one of top–down, mechanistic control in pursuit of a preservationist agenda. [Written testimony (pdf)]

“Although unfortunately foreign in many levels of government today,” said Gardner, “it is the role of government to adapt to the needs of the people, not the role of the people to adapt to the needs of government… The conservational interests forced upon the people of Maine over the past three decades have successfully done one thing, locked up more of Maine's opportunities and in turn made Maine less successful.”

Gardner faulted the anti–democratic elements inherent in the process outlined by the agency in proposing its draft revision. Developed by LURC staff, the proposed new comprehensive plan is then presented to the public in eight so–called workshops, following which comment and testimony is incorporated into a final draft. Thirty days prior to being presented to the seven governor–appointed LURC commissioners for their approval, it is sent to the Maine Legislature's Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee, which has oversight of the agency. After the LURC commissioners approve the revised plan, it is presented to the governor for his signature.

“Residents do not vote on it, the full Legislature does not debate it, we all simply get to abide by it,” said Gardner. “It is this reason that we as county commissioners come out in strong opposition.”

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Other county elected officials who spoke against the new revisions were Rep. Joseph Tibbetts (R–Columbia), a former Washington County sheriff. “I'm not frightened easily,” he said, but his reading of the document indicated to him that opportunities were being taken away from developers. He suggested that eastern Maine's unorganized territories might be better managed if, instead of LURC, they were under the jurisdiction of neighboring New Brunswick.

Sen. Kevin Raye (R–Perry) said the new revision further polarizes and deepens the divide between the “Two Maines” and will be used as a “tool by those who would unilaterally stop development.”

Noting that LURC held a hearing the previous evening in Portland, Raye asked if Portlanders would object if residents of rural Maine exercised similar powers over whether or not Portland could have further waterfront development.

Big Landowners Speak Out

Several representatives of some of the biggest private landowners in the unorganized territories–Prentiss–Carlisle, Pingree, Huber, Haynes–spoke at last week's meeting in Machias.

Elbridge Cleaves of Weston, a forester with Prentiss–Carlisle who said he was a Master Maine Guide and member of a land trust, said he believed LURC's draft proposal was the “product of an urban imagination” and the environmentalist agenda. “I'm struggling to find falsehoods with these beliefs,” he said, given his professional sympathies with conservation, but the new rules put a “lock on change and preserve the past.”

Describing his personal, as opposed to professional, concerns, Cleaves said that the proposed revision “heightens fears for the survival of my community and way of life. How did we get off on the wrong track?”

Steve Sly, representing Pingree lands, said he has “heard a lot of anger” with respect to the language employed in the new revision. Rhetoric associated with environmental advocacy is “pervasive,” said Sly, citing the repeated references to “vernal pools,” “deer yards,” “riparian zones” and the like, accompanied by “fairly substantial restrictive language.”

Absent from the document is any “pro–active set of standards to encourage economic development,” he said, whereas anti–development themes are repeated throughout.

“Multiple–use” approaches have been replaced by “primitive use” directives, said Sly, who noted that Pingree has 764,000 acres under conservation easements.

Barry Bergerson, a wildlife biologist for the Huber lands, which owns more than 400,000 acres, focused on the “language and tone.” “LURC holds the power of the pen,” he said, noting that a computer analysis of the CLUP revealed the number of times the following words were used:

John Bryant, a forester with American Forest Management, which oversees 1 million acres of privately owned land stretching between Machias and Stratton–665,000 acres in the unorganized territories–said in his 31 years as a professional forester he was “very familiar” with LURC, always defending it in the past. “Now I am second–guessing [the agency] based on the new CLUP.”

Environmental Activists Ambivalent

Karen Woodsum, representing the Sierra Club and describing herself as a “lifer environmentalist,” said one way to alleviate the problem for those residents of the unorganized territories who are unhappy with LURC is to organize themselves into a municipality. “Wallagrass was fed up and did this,” she said.

A resident of Wayne, Woodsum said her town's comprehensive plan has extensive land–use restrictions. She said owners of farmlands couldn't subdivide their properties, thus preserving the traditional land–use patterns and making the town an “amazing place.” LURC was doing the same thing on the state level, she said, indicating that similar results will occur.

“Obviously there's push–back,” said Woodsum of the criticisms being leveled at the proposed revisions, but she urged that LURC's policies be continued, saying the agency “was established by the people of Maine.”

Barbara Lapham of Marion Township, long active in solid waste disposal issues, the placement of dumps and water quality protection, told the LURC personnel, “I used to support LURC 100 percent in the old days,” but she now is “suspicious of the way LURC writes things. I sort of understand where the giant landowners are coming from.”

Julian Girard, a surveyor by trade originally from Washington, D.C., who has been living and working in Maine for 33 years, said he also has come to have reservations about LURC. “At first I thought LURC was a good thing,” he said, “that it would protect the land,” but that he was appalled last fall when it approved a new dump site, ignoring wetlands issues. “I don't trust you anymore.”

Tom Boutureira, executive director of the Great Auk Land Trust in Milbridge and a former Peace Corps worker, said that although the proposed revised plan is “necessarily vague,” given the extent of LURC's jurisdiction, he faulted it for not identifying areas appropriate for recreation and development purposes, both of which are crucial to improving Washington County's depressed economy.

“There's a lot of confusion; people aren't sure where things are going,” he said. “Uncertainty retards action.” Boutureira suggested that the LURC staff “remove suspicion out of the process.”

Becky Baxter of East Machias, an 11–year resident of the area, who described herself as a “granola” and an “environmentalist,” said she put a conservation easement on property she owns along the Pleasant River in Columbia Falls in an effort to help salmon restoration efforts. But she worries now that other land she owns, parts of which she had planned to sell to her brother for a home, may not be available for subdivision under LURC jurisdiction.

Baxter said she has worked as a personal assistant for a man who owns extensive property in the unorganized territories and who has filed applications to develop some of it. “His process has astounded me,” she said, noting the thousands of dollars he has to spend and the hours required filling out the paperwork.

“My future will be severely impacted by this document,” said Baxter.


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