Most people seem to agree on the goals of the Land Use Planning Commission’s rule-making effort about a policy called “adjacency.”

The goals of the adjacency policy are to encourage new subdivisions and businesses to locate close to services in order to prevent habitat fragmentation, support the economies of rural municipalities and create more opportunities for recreation-, woods- and farm-related entrepreneurs. These goals are all popular, so it is worth examining why there has been public discussion recently about how to get there.

Since the 1980s, development in the unorganized and deorganized territories – half the state’s land mass – has been governed by the one-mile rule, which says new zones for subdivisions or businesses should be located within a mile of existing housing clusters and businesses. That’s fine when the cluster of houses is in a good spot, but when it’s not, it’s a recipe for long-term fragmentation of the forest and added expense for public services. Think of it as freckles across the landscape, expanding in size over time. Because there is so little subdivision activity in these very rural places, it’s not a crisis today, but since we are a planning organization, it makes sense to come up with a better plan for the long term, rather than being a frog sitting in the increasingly warm water of the current policy.

After an exhaustive, three-year, transparent public process, we proposed a new approach, which is in part based on regional planning projects undertaken by Washington and Aroostook counties. At our Tuesday meeting, we will consider further changes based on a final round of public comments.

The new approach is not as simple as the one-mile rule of thumb, but it is more predictable and will produce better results in the long run. New zones for development would mostly be within a reasonable distance from emergency services. The rules would provide consumer protections for lot owners to access their properties, and require new and significant habitat and scenic protections that benefit us all. Undeveloped lakes and ponds that are far from towns are called out for special protection.

The proposed approach also provides more options for people who want to be entrepreneurs in recreation-, farm- or woods-related businesses. Unless people can make a living by engaging in businesses that are compatible with healthy forest or farmland, the risk increases that the land will be converted to other uses – an outcome almost everyone wants to avoid.

The commission has heard from people that we are going too far, or alternatively, not far enough. It is understandable that this is a subject about which people have strong opinions, and there are a lot of important policy decisions to make. We continue to make changes to reflect the information and suggestions that we are receiving. But frankly, some of the information that is out there is just plain wrong. It is misinformation, and we are going to make our decisions based on solid analysis and the policy objectives that have been set out for the commission by the Legislature. We welcome inquiries from people who want to go beyond the sound bites and learn more about this important and complex topic.

The 10 million acres where we provide services are made up of hundreds of townships, dozens of plantations and even a few organized towns that choose to have the commission carry out their planning functions. Our service area is a place of remarkable diversity; the “big woods,” coastal islands such as Monhegan and Matinicus, Aroostook County farmland, rugged and beautiful mountain ranges, remote lakes and ponds and many, many villages and lakefront camp developments.

The commission takes seriously the responsibility to protect the important natural resources of this area, as they are the foundation of local and statewide economies, habitat resources, and quality of life. We are equally serious about being responsive to local property owners, as the Land Use Planning Commission is their planning board, and their only forum for land use zoning and permits. There are ways to both improve the economic prospects for rural Maine and to simultaneously protect the character and environmental quality of our state’s most sparsely populated areas. The commission and its staff are not abandoning the notion of “adjacency.” Rather, we are attempting to bring it, kicking and screaming, into the realities of what is happening in rural Maine today, and laying the foundation for making rational, long-term planning decisions.

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