May 28, 2024

Development debate postpones land use plan

State regulators voted Wednesday to delay work on a critical planning document in order to allow additional dialogue about how development pressure is affecting the Unorganized Territory.

Members of the Land Use Regulation Commission agreed to postpone work on the agency’s comprehensive land use plan in response to lingering criticisms that a draft of the plan overstates the threat posed by dispersed development within the 10.5 million acre UT.

To address those concerns, commission members have proposed bringing in an independent facilitator to hold at least four meetings with preselected interested parties to discuss development issues.

Information gathered during those “working group” meetings then will be considered by LURC staff when revising the comprehensive plan, which guides policy decisions throughout the North Woods and other unincorporated areas of Maine.

The working group proposal had the unanimous support of the commissioners Wednesday as well as some of the organizations that have been most critical of the wording in the draft plan. The proposal received lukewarm support from several environmental organizations, however.

“What we’re concerned about is having a never-ending debate,” said Diano Circo, North Woods policy advocate and outreach coordinator with the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “We’ve had a never-ending debate for a while, so we want [the group] to be solution-oriented … We don’t want to be part of something that is just going to delay the process.”

The disagreement over LURC’s comprehensive plan is the latest manifestation of a debate that has been raging for years about the future of the largest tract of undeveloped forestland east of the Mississippi River.

In the original draft made public last spring, LURC staff expressed concerns about a lack of regulatory controls to prevent development in remote areas, especially as Maine becomes more of a destination for retirees and second-home buyers.

LURC has permitted more than 8,100 new dwellings in the UT since 1971. But commission staffers point out that roughly 70 percent of those dwellings legally bypassed LURC’s rezoning and subdivision processes that are intended to guide development into appropriate locations.

But the commission’s critics point out that 8,100 dwellings over 30-plus years is not a large number on a landscape encompassing more than 10 million acres. They also counter that much of that development has occurred close to roads or existing communities.

Patrick Strauch, executive director of the Maine Forest Products Council, which represents the state’s largest timberland owners, agreed with LURC staff that the working group should not be striving for consensus on such a controversial issue. The council has been one of the organizations most vocal in its criticism of the draft plan.

“This really has to be a discussion and a forum and an airing of ideas,” Strauch told the commission during its meeting Wednesday in Bangor.

LURC staffers originally recommended that the commission meet with the facilitator and the working group six to eight times, likely in January and February. But the commission reduced it to four meetings after expressing concerns about the time constraints on volunteer commissioners and the other unpaid interested parties.

“If it can’t be done in four then it probably can’t be done at all,” said commission chairman Bart Harvey.

The working group meetings will be facilitated by Jonathan Reitman, a trained mediator based in Brunswick. The Nature Conservancy has offered to pay for the working group sessions because of shrinking state budgets, LURC staff said Wednesday.

Commission members said it would be important to lay down the ground rules as well as the objectives of the working group before meeting. But even those tasks likely will be controversial if Wednesday’s dialogue was any indication.

While Strauch said the group should start by looking at what has happened in the UT over the past several decades before deciding how to deal with the development issue, Jody Jones with Maine Audubon said the group should focus on identifying solutions not “re-examining the past.”

LURC staff estimated that the working group process likely will delay adoption of a comprehensive plan by at least two months. For that reason, the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee, which must sign off on any comprehensive plan updates, will have to agree to the delay before the working groups can be convened.


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