In 1969, Republican state lawmaker Harrison Richardson attempted to bring some order to Maine's "wildlands."
Richardson, and many other political leaders, felt the handful of large corporations that owned most of Maine's North Woods were putting profits ahead of public interest. The largest contiguous forest east of the Mississippi and the 10.4 million acres of what's known as unorganized territory in Maine may be largely privately owned, he said, but it was ultimately a state resource that needed state oversight.
The effort to create The Wildlands Use Regulation Bill touched off a political battle against powerful interests, including the pulp and paper companies that ruled the UT, harvested its timber and dominated the state economy.
More than 40 years later, the fight still rages. The agency that Richardson helped create, the Land Use Regulation Commission, has always been besieged by those unhappy with its protectionist mission, which some believe unfairly usurps private property rights.
Now, recently ascendant Republican leaders have introduced a plan to get rid of LURC.
LURC abolitionists, including Gov. Paul LePage and Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry, say it's time for change, local control and, potentially, more development in the UT.
Hearings on LURC's fate began last week, with a report due to the Legislature by Jan. 15.
Despite the power and influence behind the movement to end LURC, interviews with the many players indicate that might not be enough.
As expected, environmental groups are sounding the same alarm that Richardson and fellow state Sen. Horace Hildreth Jr. did in 1969. They say the future of the North Woods — nearly as untouched as it was 154 years ago when naturalist Henry David Thoreau visited it — is in jeopardy if LURC is eliminated.
Even some longtime critics of the agency say it should be spared, reformed and properly funded.
Perhaps more importantly, the counties that would assume LURC's authority — as well as its responsibilities and costs — are not united.
In some instances, they couldn't be more divided.
Power to the counties
Currently, LURC oversees all planning and development in the UT, coordinating with various state and federal agencies and applying strict rules and guidelines set forth in its enabling legislation. Its seven-member board of commissioners, appointed by the governor, operates as a quasi-judicial body. It has the final say on applications as large as a 1,000-house subdivision — the size of the controversial Plum Creek project — and as small as a new porch on a summer camp.
Raye's plan would dissolve LURC and send its planning authority to the 13 counties with UT territory. Each county's board of commissioners could hire planning staff, create planning boards and authorize development.
The counties could also elect not to have a planning board. In that case the commissioners would be the final arbiter on all projects.
Local planning. Local control.
Push-back to the plan was immediate.
The thought of county commissioners wielding that kind of power unnerves environmental groups and even some of LURC's critics. They envision provincial, inexperienced commissioners and planning boards green-lighting scattered, substandard subdivisions that slice up the North Woods.
Without a central or regional plan, opponents say, development priorities could change county to county, election to election.
Raye, who is aligned with county commissioners in Washington and Aroostook, has fought back, citing LURC's historically rigid interpretation of its rules. The Senate president compared the Augusta agency to a "colonial power" that has denied rural, poorer regions the right to self-determination.
LePage also weighed in. The governor said 30 percent of the North Woods should be opened for development. Currently, 1 percent of the UT is zoned for non-forestry development.
The majority of the 13 counties back Raye's plan. The forest products industry, still influential despite its diminished economic presence, also supports it and represents the interests of many of the UT's largest landowners.
Such a coalition would appear to doom LURC. But significant sticking points could derail that outcome.
New authority, new costs
About half of LURC's $2 million budget and 26-person staff is funded by the taxpayers of the UT. The rest is appropriated by the state's General Fund.
That would change if the agency is scrapped and the costs are shifted to the 13 UT counties.
Preliminary estimates show dissolving LURC would shift more than $1.5 million in oversight to the counties. The costs would vary county to county, depending on the level of planning and enforcement each chooses, and the number and complexity of legal challenges filed in response to their actions.
Scott Cole, the Oxford County manager, estimated Oxford would have to spend roughly $150,000 to hire planning staff. Additionally, he said, because Oxford's South Paris headquarters are cramped, the county may have to consider adding office space to accommodate new staff.
Cole estimated the overall additional cost to UT taxpayers in Oxford would be about $53 per year on a $100,000 property.
Oxford's UT acreage isn't experiencing the same development pressure as other counties, in part because much of it lies in the White Mountain National Forest. Between 2006 and 2010, LURC processed 212 permit applications from Oxford County, ranking it seventh of the so-called Big 8 UT counties.
Piscataquis County, the second largest county in LURC jurisdiction, is second on the list with 681 requests. The county, home to the Moosehead Lakes Region, estimated that assuming LURC responsibilities would cost, at a minimum, about $330,000 a year.
The cost is a big reason the Piscataquis County commissioners, all Republicans, oppose abolishing LURC.
Eric Ward, one of the commissioners and a UT native, said Piscataquis doesn't think the county can duplicate LURC's duties without incurring more costs to taxpayers.
"Three years ago, we saw a 30 percent increase in taxes for the UT," Ward said. "We took a lot of heat for that."
Unlike Oxford and Piscataquis, few counties have provided cost estimates to take over LURC's duties. Those that have, have not yet calculated potential legal costs to defend permit decisions that could be challenged in court.
Currently, LURC's legal services are provided by the Maine Attorney General's Office. According to estimates from the AG, LURC pays $25,000 a year to the AG, but receives between $75,000 and $100,000 worth of legal services each year.
AG spokeswoman Brenda Kielty said the office handles three or four LURC cases per year. Such cases could become the counties' responsibility.
That's just one concern for Beth Della Valle with the Maine Association of Planners. She said taking on LURC's duties would require experience in statutory, constitutional and case law.
"It's not that (the counties) can't develop that expertise, but it's pretty expensive," she said. "The dollars that they’re talking about to support this activity are woefully inadequate."
Cathy Johnson, with the environmental group the Natural Resources Council of Maine, believes some counties are downplaying the cost factor. Either they don't grasp what LURC does, she said, or they don't plan to adhere to the same standards, action that could boost the potential for lawsuits and legal costs.
"At the same time that Piscataquis County was saying it could cost them about $330,000, one of the Washington County commissioners testified they could do it for $85,000," she said. "That sent a very clear signal to me that they didn’t plan to do very much planning or enforcement."
Raye says those who think the counties can't or wouldn't treat the UT with the same care as LURC begin their argument with a faulty, and insulting, premise: The counties don't have the same appreciation for the land.
"Those folks say that somehow they need to be told by a central government that, 'Oh, gosh, you probably don't have sense enough to appreciate it, but you live someplace special and we're going to take care of it for you,'" Raye said.
He said that thinking is emblematic of a "paternalistic, elitist" attitude toward rural Mainers.
"It suggests that we're somehow less intelligent, less perceptive, less caring of our environment," he said. "It drives the people of rural Maine crazy."
Chris Gardner, a Washington County commissioner and a vocal critic of LURC, agrees. Gardner says that under LURC, UT residents aren't governed, "they're ruled."
"People who make these decisions are appointed; they're not elected," he said. "They don’t have to live in the same jurisdiction with the people affected by their decisions."
Raye and Gardner believe UT residents are denied rights afforded to people who live in municipalities. Decisions about their homes, their land and how their private property is governed are handed down "like edicts," Gardner said.
Nearly 43 percent of Washington County is in the UT. Raye said he wasn't sure what kind of development would come to Washington County if LURC were abolished, but that local people should be able to determine whether that kind of development is right for their community.
In some cases, Raye said, it could be as simple as adding on a porch or building a garage. UT residents, he said, shouldn't have to deal with a bureaucracy in Augusta to complete those tasks.
But it's not the small projects that worry opponents of Raye's plan.
When LURC was created, about 90 percent of the UT was owned by about 12 landowners, including eight national pulp and paper companies. The ownership has been fragmented as the paper companies have divested their land holdings to myriad private investors and limited liability companies.
About 7.3 million acres of the UT is in Maine Tree Growth, a state program that gives landowners significant property tax breaks in exchange for maintaining their land for timber harvesting.
Maine Revenue Services assesses a hefty penalty to discourage landowners from withdrawing from the program. But at least one wealthy landowner, Plum Creek, has demonstrated a willingness to pay the fine in order to pursue different development.
Johnson, with NRCM, worries that more large landowners would do the same if counties are less vigilant about planning.
"I think LURC is the only thing standing between us and scattered subdivisions throughout the North Woods," she said. "The Tree Growth tax penalty isn't high enough to discourage that kind of development."
Raye said such fears are nonsense.
"Listen, these people are going to be as vigilant in ensuring a balance and protecting the nature that makes their county special as somebody in Augusta," he said. "... I do not see it in any way as being a doomsday scenario that we’re going to be paving over the UT."
Orland Delogu, an emeritus professor at the University of Maine School of Law, has long harbored negative opinions of LURC.
A citizen representative on the Board of Environmental Protection in the 1970s, Delogu believes the agency has fostered an "anti-development and pro-wilderness" culture while issuing permits at a glacial pace.
Patrick Strauch, representing the influential Maine Forest Products Council, agrees. Strauch, speaking on behalf of the UT's largest landowners, has said LURC is an "insular" agency that "imposed public values on private land."
But unlike Strauch, Delogu doesn't think LURC should be abolished.
Delogu last week told an audience of real estate developers and lawmakers at the Senator Inn in Augusta, "The counties are simply not prepared to assume the responsibilities LePage would thrust upon them."
He added that abolishing LURC would mean jettisoning a competent staff and "a holistic approach to changing realities" in the UT.
He said the agency needed major reform, including a review of it protectionist culture.
Elizabeth Swain served on LURC from 1984 to 1992. She believes changes are needed but that dismantling the agency would be an "overreaction." Swain said if anti-development bias existed at the agency, it could be because LURC was created to protect against the reckless development of the 1960s.
Delogu believes it is LURC's strict adherence to its 1971 mission that has "awakened an interest among area landowners to protect their constitutional private property rights."
Even some of LURC's ardent supporters argue that the agency is ready for change.
Johnson, with NRCM, said the agency must increase predictability and designate areas that might be right for development.
Others have suggested allowing applicants for smaller projects, such as adding a deck to a camp or building a shed, to simply submit paperwork swearing that they'll build according to code.
Such reforms may well be in store for the agency, but only if LURC can survive its reputation as an anti-development bureaucracy responsible for the economic plight of rural Maine.
"For several years now, LURC has been the whipping boy," said Ward, the Piscataquis County commissioner. "All the woes of rural Maine are LURC’s fault. I just don’t buy that."
Ward has a difficult time convincing others.
"I was talking to a guy who wants to get rid of LURC because he wants rural Maine to prosper," he said. "I just said to him, 'Prior to LURC, what big commercial development happened in the unorganized territory?' He didn’t have an answer."
Despite previously calling for LURC's abolishment, Gardner, the outspoken Washington County commissioner, says he's keeping an open mind about LURC's future.
Gardner serves on the LURC Reform Commission that will consider changes to the agency.
LURC defenders were quick to note that the commission is stacked with members who would scuttle the agency. The panel was appointed by LePage, Raye and House Speaker Robert Nutting, R-Oakland. Seven of the 13 panelists have testified in favor of abolishing LURC.
But Gardner disputed criticism that the commission won't consider alternative reforms. He said the abolitionists had been vocal because LURC had never listened to their concerns.
"It isn't like this bell hasn't been rung for a long period of time," he said. "It wasn’t until we brought the pitchforks to the gate that they realized there needed to be an overhaul."
Even if Gardner and others are predisposed to eliminating LURC, such a fate isn't certain.
First, some GOP state lawmakers have expressed reluctance to support Raye's plan once it reaches the Legislature.
Second, transferring LURC powers to the counties could trigger a provision that requires a super-majority — a two-thirds vote — of the House and Senate to pass an abolishment plan. Meaning some Democratic votes would be needed.
If the agency survives, the reforms Delogu and others have proposed may well be LURC's future. However, as Delogu noted, a revamped LURC wouldn't work unless it's funded.
Johnson, with NRCM, is skeptical that the funding will come.
"Obviously the quickest way to get rid of an unwanted agency is to dismantle it," she said. "But if that turns out to be unpopular, the other way is to bleed it of funding."
She added, "That's my fear for LURC."
This story was clarified to reflect LURC's funding mechanism.