The Tipping Point
Abolishing LURC would mean the end of the North Woods as we know it.
- By: Colin Woodard
Images by Kapu/shutterstock.com (bulldozer); Ivonne Wierink/shutterstock.com (tree)
One of the distinguishing characteristics of Maine is its vast northern woods, more than 16,000 square miles of largely undeveloped and uninhabited forest, some of it protected in parks or land trust reserves, the vast majority a working forest where hunting, fishing, hiking, snowmobiling, and wood harvesting have taken place side by side. On a map of the eastern United States, it jumps out at you: An area occupying a quarter of New England that is replete with ponds, lakes, streams, and rivers, but largely devoid of settlements or public roads. It’s the primary reason people think of Maine as a wild state — land of the moose and the lumberjack — to a degree not accorded to New Hampshire, Vermont, or even the Adirondacks of New York, where paved highways crisscross the remotest woods, and the next service station is never more than half a tank away.
The largest contiguous forest on this side of the Mississippi, the Maine North Woods owes its survival to two factors: the forest products industry, which has owned and harvested the vast majority of the forest for the better part of two centuries, and the Land Use Regulation Commission (LURC), which has overseen development over this forested half of the state since 1971. In recent decades, many in our state have looked with trepidation as the lumber and paper companies have divested themselves of their land holdings (and, often, the mills that went with them), clearing the stage for an epic struggle between wholesale buyers shopping for developable real estate and those with an eye to protecting large parcels as public reserves, land trusts, or even a national park. The magical equilibrium of the Maine woods — privately owned, publicly enjoyed — had been thrown off-kilter.
This spring, the long-simmering debate boiled over into the halls and chambers of the State House, with the introduction of a bill that sought to eliminate LURC altogether, and with it the state’s role in overseeing planning and development in its vast, 10.4 million acre jurisdiction. The bill — sponsored by Representative Jeffrey Gifford (R-Lincoln) and championed by Senate President Kevin Raye (R-Perry) — sought to transfer these powers to the counties, which in Maine have long been entities of little consequence and limited powers. Were it to be enacted, the North Woods would no longer be governed as a single unit by a state agency, but rather as eight jurisdictions, each controlled by a separate set of county commissioners.
Legislators punted, turning the issue over to a newly minted commission tasked with “reforming the governance” and “opportunities for increased self-determination in land use planning” in the half of Maine under LURC’s jurisdiction. The commission is expected to be getting down to work this summer, and will issue its final recommendations in January. The commissioners may be well disposed toward the plan to eliminate LURC, as the plan was strongly supported by the three men who will have appointed them: Governor Paul LePage, Senator Raye, and House Speaker Robert Nutting (R-Oakland).
Most of those who want to do away with LURC say the agency has trespassed on the democratic rights of the people living in its jurisdiction, colloquially described as the Unorganized Territories, or UT. “In every other part of Maine, planning decisions are made by local residents,” Senator Raye testified before a legislative committee this May. “By contrast, LURC more closely resembles a colonial power able to impose its members’ will on any given part of the UT.”
“It is at its heart, a two-tiered system that is unfair and makes second-class citizens of residents and landowners in the Unorganized Territories,” Raye told me. “I trust local government, and it should have the same role in land-use planning for the UT as municipalities have within their borders.” The Forest Service would continue to regulate forestry operations and the Department of Environmental Protection would oversee the largest developments, but most permitting and zoning decisions would be placed in the hands of people living in the counties where the projects were to take place.
“There’s been a realization in this state that central planning doesn’t always work,” adds Chris Gardner, chair of the Washington County commissioners. “This is about taking something that was centralized thirty years ago that has become stagnant, cumbersome, and out of touch, and putting it back in the hands of regional elected representatives. If you’re handing it back to the people, what could possibly go wrong?”
Critics think a great deal could go wrong, especially those who see the North Woods as the common inheritance of all Mainers, not just the people living in or near to them. “The real issue with LURC is whether the forest is going to remain a forest for the benefit of the forest products industry and recreation or if it will be converted into scattered development so that real estate investors can make profits,” says Cathy Johnson, North Woods project director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, who points out that much former paper company land in the region is now owned by real estate investors who have incentives to divvy its ample waterfront parcels up into house lots, rather than growing and cutting trees.
Indeed, there’s reason to be concerned that the real beneficiaries of the proposed changes are not the residents of the region, who all told number only 11,000 or fewer people than live in Falmouth. Those wishing to escape LURC’s clutches can do so by organizing themselves into municipalities which, under Maine’s uber-Yankee home-rule system, are little republics unto themselves, issuing building permits and property tax bills. Since LURC was created, seventeen Unorganized Townships have done so. Tellingly, seven of these chose to remain under LURC’s jurisdiction, rather than face the expense of creating planning departments of their own.
“Of course, the people who live in the UT should be heard and given a chance to talk about their point of view, but that doesn’t mean that just because they live in an Unorganized Territory that they should have control over the whole thing,” says Horace Hildreth, Jr., the former Republican legislator who sponsored the original LURC bill in 1967. “This is a democracy, and the Unorganized Territories are a physical and historical aspect of the state of Maine that can’t be treated as the private interest of a very few people who happen to live nearest it.”
Fact is, nine-tenths of the land in the region is owned by people and share-holders who don’t live there, or even in Maine. New Brunswick’s powerful Irving family — owners of Irving Oil, J.D. Irving, and most of the province’s newspapers — is the state’s largest landowner, followed by Colorado billionaire John Malone, the Seattle-based Plum Creek Timber Company, and the heirs of nineteenth-century land baron David Pingree, whose subsidiaries include the Seven Islands Land Company.
Most of these large holdings currently lie in LURC’s jurisdiction, which is why the agency oversees Plum Creek’s proposed two thousand-unit development around Moosehead Lake. Many big landowners have an interest in protecting the forest — the Pingree heirs sold conservation easement to three-quarters of their 830,000 acres in 2001 — but others would be happy to be freed from LURC’s heavy shackles.
A case in point: A December 2010 memo sent to Governor-elect LePage by Tom Gardner and Jay Haynes, whose families respectively control the W.T. Gardner and Sons and H.C. Haynes forest products companies and their associated land holding entities. “The legislature should require that not less than 30 percent of the jurisdiction be zoned for development,” they wrote to the governor, who duly included their recommendation in his controversial regulatory reform agenda. The current “land zoned for development is insufficient,” they continued. “Solution: Remove planning authority from LURC and cede it back to the counties.” These and a suite of other changes were included in a twenty-nine-page mark-up of the LURC law attached to the memo, many of which made it into the bill legislators considered in Augusta this spring.
“We are adamant that the system that has evolved over the time LURC has existed is very expensive, slow, cumbersome, and is not needed,” says H.C. Haynes land surveyor Elgin H. Turner, who represented the company in meetings with Raye, Giffords, county officials, and landowners to ammend the bill earlier this spring. “Development is just too cumbersome, so we just have had to spend our resources doing something else.”
A wide range of interest groups have lined up against this line of thinking. Not surprisingly, environmental groups are opposed to the changes, which would fragment decision making and, they worry, the forest itself. “We should be stepping back to around thirty thousand feet and asking ourselves where development should occur in the region,” says Tom Abello of the Nature Conservancy in Maine. “It’s more appropriate to do that holistically rather than piecemeal, with each county potentially creating separate rules.” The Maine Municipal Association, which represents local government, is also concerned, warning legislators that creating and maintaining eight county planning departments will be expensive and will achieve little in the way of democratization. “The counties have no town meeting or council — no legislative body that would answer to the voters directly,” says Executive Director Geoff Herman. “It’s kind of like the problems associated with LURC, where one entity is both writing and implementing the rules. It lacks that check and balance system.”
“You’re looking at eight counties, each with their own proposals and policies and hopes and dreams, and they won’t be consistent,” says George Smith, the former longtime director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine (and DownEast.com blogger), who supported the Plum Creek project but opposed the bill. “As much as I understand the pent-up anger with LURC, we shouldn’t lose sight of the value of this amazing resource that really deserves the attention of a state agency.” LURC should be reformed to be friendlier to landowners and local residents, he argues, not done away with entirely.
Piscataquis County — the heart of the North Woods and the site of the Plum Creek development — has rallied to LURC’s defense as well. “County government is anachronistic, dysfunctional, and has no experience with land-use development in Maine,” says County Commission Chair Tom Lizotte, who is blunt in his assessment of why his county is the only one of eight that opposes ditching LURC. “Clearly this was driven by the agenda of Paul LePage and the right wing of the party, who feel that if the Unorganized Territories are opened up to development, the economy would bloom,” he says. “But we commissioners in Piscataquis are moderate Republicans, which means we are less influenced by party dogma. We prefer to think for ourselves.” County officials estimate that if LURC were eliminated, first-year planning costs alone would top $328,000, a significant burden for a county with only 17,500 residents.
Nor, by all accounts, was the forest products industry as a whole particularly enthusiastic about the plan, which their association only endorsed after extensive behind-the-scenes negotiations with Raye and the counties. “We want LURC to grow up and mature and stop considering the landowners and residents of the area to be just another special interest,” says Maine Forest Products Council Executive Director Patrick Strauch. “Senator Raye approached us and really wanted our support, but we said that if you want to maintain strong planning and stewardship of that area, you have to think about how you’re going to do that.” An amended version of the bill satisfied their concerns, but still failed to garner sufficient support among wary legislators, who backed a study commission instead.
It’s not clear if a political consensus will emerge before the legislature reconvenes in January, but LURC’s opponents clearly see a narrow window of opportunity. At a key behind-the-scenes meeting in Bangor on April 11, Raye told landowners and county representatives that they had “a historic opportunity to let rural Maine take control again” and that “we shouldn’t let it slip through our fingers” as it might not happen again, according to the meeting minutes. “If we [eliminate LURC] it will be very hard for a future legislature to take it back,” he predicted. “If you just change LURC, it could come back.” Gardner, the Washington County commissioner, reiterated these points to Down East, noting that reforms could be undone “if the political winds shift back the other way.”
Given the expected tilt of the study commission, however, opponents aren’t celebrating. “I don’t think people should take comfort in the delay,” says Cathy Johnson of the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “The threat that LURC will be abolished is even greater now than it was before.”
- By: Colin Woodard