The Universal Notebook: Reorganizing the unorganized territories

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Environmental groups in Maine seem pretty united in opposition to a proposal to change the way the state regulates where development may occur in Maine’s unorganized territories, that 10 million-acre half of the state where fewer than 9,000 people live and the Land Use Planning Commission is the law of the land.

At issue is LUPC’s proposed change to the adjacency principle, the initial screening device used to determine where development can occur. For decades, the agency has used a 1-mile rule of thumb, specifying that any new development must be within 1 mile by road of existing development.

The proposed revision to the adjacency principle would allow development within seven miles as the crow flies from 41 designated rural hubs. The plan also calls for primary development zones where commercial and residential development might occur, and secondary zones where only residential development would be permitted.

“This is the biggest policy change in 40 years and it could change the face of the North Woods forever,” says Cathy Johnson, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

“If I thought this was going to be bad for the North Woods,” says LUPC Executive Director Nick Livesay, “we wouldn’t be doing it. I think this is good for Maine.”

The proposed change seems to have its roots in the 2012 reorganization that created LUPC out of the old Land Use Regulation Commission. Folks in northern Maine were so upset that LURC held a hearing in Portland on a massive Plum Creek development around Moosehead Lake that they first tried to abolish it and then put it almost entirely under local control.

Where LURC was a seven-member board appointed by the governor to represent different points of view, the nine-member LUPC board consists of eight members appointed by county commissioners in the eight counties with the most acreage in the UT, plus one gubernatorial appointee. The reorganization thus meant the commission lost both its statewide perspective and its diversity of viewpoints. LUPC members tend to be skeptical of outsiders, whether environmentalists or developers, and seem focused on local economic development.

Livesay says economic development did not drive the new adjacency plan, rather the staff developed it in an attempt to create a more nuanced tool for locating development.

“There will be more opportunity for development near the hubs,” he says, “but less opportunity for development in remote areas.”

Johnson fears the proposed change to the adjacency principle opens 1.3 million acres to development and will result in sprawl, encouraging commercial development in rural areas outside of organized towns where taxes are higher.

“We’re not opposed to development,” she insists. “We just want that development to support communities and not siphon it away.”

But Livesay points out that much of that 1.3 million acres has been available for development for years and has not been.

“We don’t have exact numbers to allow us to quantify this overlap, but any statement that the LUPC is proposing to open 1.3 million acres to development – suggesting no similar opportunity exists today – is inaccurate and misleading.”

No date has been set for LUPC to vote on the new adjacency plan, but legislators are already proposing legislation to enable the governor to appoint as many as three or four of the commissioners. And should LUPC adopt the 7 miles as the crow flies hub model, it’s a good bet there will be attempts in the Legislature to counter that as well.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.