SOLON — A panel studying the future of the Land Use Regulation Commission heard a common refrain Thursday afternoon during a public listening session: Please reform and improve the commission, but keep it.

Panel members in turn said they’re attempting to strike a balance between maintaining oversight of Maine’s vast North Woods, while also removing regulatory hurdles to economic development.

Howard Trotzsky, a Republican legislator from 1972 to 1984, recalled that legislation had been introduced in the 1970s to dismantle LURC amid an economic recession in an attempt to help foster economic development and produce jobs. Those efforts failed, he said, and he asked the panel to preserve the commission, known as LURC, and focus on keeping the North Woods a working forest.

“I’m begging you — don’t dismantle,” Trotzsky said. “Find out what can be done to make LURC work better. We have to think: What do we want this area to be like for our grandchildren, our great-grandchildren and for generations we’ll never see?”

About 50 people attended Thursday’s workshop, held at the fire station in the Somerset County town of Solon.

The Land Use Regulation Commission has overseen planning and zoning for the unorganized territories in northern Maine for about 40 years, but critics say the commission has become a barrier to economic development in the region and that land-use decisions should be made by people who live there.

Earlier this year, Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature clashed over a GOP-backed bill that would have distributed LURC’s powers to the counties, the Maine Forest Service and the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. But legislators decided instead to create the 13-member LURC Reform Commission, a study panel that will report back to lawmakers in January with recommendations.

Conservation Commissioner William Beardsley, who is chairman of the study panel, said the group is struggling with big questions like how to balance private access and development to the land while also maintaining the public good.

Bill Townsend, who served on LURC when it was created 40 years ago and is a former chairman, pointed to the importance of the commission in making sure Maine’s natural resources in the North Woods are protected. He noted that all of Maine’s rivers originate in the unorganized territories.

“What happens in the mountains affects the Gulf of Maine,” Townsend said.

Townsend offered some suggestions for simplifying LURC rules, saying that “times change and we have to change with them.” LURC was designed 40 years ago and “such things as wind power weren’t even dreamed of then,” he said.

People who spoke during the public comment session during the afternoon Thursday asked the panel to recommend common-sense changes to LURC’s rules without comprising its core mission. They asked that LURC be improved, but not abolished or dismantled.

Gordon Mott, a forester and landowner from Lakeville, said he has been working in the North Woods since 1976. A big concern for him is that there be greater local representation for those who live and work in the areas.

David Miller said he lives in an unorganized territory and his experiences with LURC have been positive and “a tremendous help to me.” Miller said members from a variety of special interests and advocacy groups were in the room, but it’s people from the unorganized territories who are need of representation on the commission.

Buzz Lamb, who said he owns land in Somerset and Piscataquis counties, also advised the panel to think about long-term over short-term economic goals.

“I do believe our wilderness is worth preserving,” Lamb said. “It would be a serious mistake to lose it.”

An exchange between Trotzsky and study panel member Christopher Gardner revealed tensions over land use regulation. When Trotzsky suggested that Maine’s larger towns and cities have experienced zoning and planning professionals to oversee development and that LURC serves that role for the unorganized territories, Gardner said he bristled at the suggestion that “people in Portland are smart enough to handle this stuff but people in rural Maine are not.”

Gardner then posed a hypothetical: If Maine’s North Woods are protected by LURC review because it is considered a vital natural resource for the state, then why doesn’t LURC also regulate Maine’s coastal regions?

Panel member Judith Cooper East had a response: Shoreland zoning rules, which have been in place since the 1970s, are comparable to the type of review LURC offers.

Specifics aside, other public speakers simply spoke about their love of the natural beauty of the North Woods.

Joan Farnsworth recalled enjoying the northern Maine woods, lakes and rivers, saying those sites need to be protected against development encroachment. She recalled one particular pond and it seeming like “heaven on earth.”

“I hope members of the commission think of that little remote pond,” she said. “We’re all part of nature and nature is part of us.”

Panel member Don White downplayed fears that there is a “sea of development” waiting to disturb Maine’s natural resources, saying data on LURC permit applications don’t back that up.

“There ain’t a lot of wolves at the gate,” White said.

Gardner Defoe said he’s spent decades introducing young people to the state’s beauty, from the ski slopes of Sugarloaf to canoeing on the Allagash River. Beardsley pointed to a bridge over the river that enables loggers to pass by as a reflection of the balance between economic development and maintaining natural beauty of a river.

Beardsley asked Defoe how the state should balance those goals. Defoe wasn’t sure, but pointed to a “de-evolution of the Allagash as usable resource for people who want to canoe.”

“Those young people return to see what they saw,” Defoe said. “In many instances, they’re disappointed.”

Even as the study panel met Thursday, a coalition of environmental and planning organizations offered their proposed reforms to LURC. Those proposals include increasing local control and input among the 40 towns and plantations within LURC’s jurisdiction; provide regional planning and zoning; greater opportunity to appeal LURC decisions; and improve LURC’s customer service with applicants.

Scott Monroe — 861-9239

[email protected]

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