Nicholas Barth: LD 1798 would create hodgepodge of competing planning agencies

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LURC does need to fundamentally reorganize.

On Feb. 16, I attended a public hearing before the Joint Standing Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry on LD 1798 — “An Act to Reform Land Use Planning in the Unorganized Territory.”

The legislation would dramatically change land-use planning and regulation of the unique 10.4 million acres of wild lands in the unorganized territories. That has been the responsibility of the Land Use Regulation Commission for some 40 years.

Proponents of LD 1798 suggested that a majority of North Woods county commissioners (or their representatives) on the LURC Commission would make LURC a more responsive and accountable state agency. They strongly supported the opportunity for the counties to opt out of LURC and do their own land-use planning, if they did not like what LURC was doing. They also liked the idea in LD 1789 of transferring most of LURC’s regulatory responsibilities to the departments of Conservation and Environmental Protection.

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The opponents of LD 1798 spoke from a variety of perspectives on the many problems inherent in the changes being suggested for LURC. I testified for my allotted three minutes, pointing out to the legislative committee that it was dealing with a very complex issue and that LD 1798 was an incomplete analysis based upon very limited and sometimes conflicting data.

Land-use planning and regulation of the UT wild lands should involve the service center communities and municipalities in the North Woods area. These developed areas depend upon the adjacent wild lands for economic benefits from outdoor recreation and natural resource uses.

For one state agency, LURC, planning land use and administering regulations in the UT is far more desirable than a hodgepodge of competing county planning agencies and multiple state agencies, all with different agendas.

After some 40 years of operation, LURC does need to fundamentally reorganize and increase its staff to better inform the public on its mission, planning and regulatory processes. With this restructuring, additional resources and the involvement of the developed area in the North Woods, LURC should be better positioned to involve the local citizens in planning and regulating wild lands and open space uses.

LURC’s current land-use planning and regulatory processes are inadequate to ensure sustainable development in the UT. The constant rezoning that has taken place is leading to suburbanization of the wild lands and the elimination of many natural resource values that provide the basis for a sustainable economy.

I have suggested a density-based land-use classification system such as that which has been successfully used for almost 40 years in the Adirondack Park in New York State.

After a density-based land-use classification system was in place, LURC would re-evaluate and adjust current zoning to fit this land-use classification system. I have discussed this idea with the acting director of LURC who found it “intriguing.”

The economic growth potential is huge for wild lands-based outdoor recreation in the UT.

For example, within the Adirondack Park, there have been major state investments in a wide variety of outdoor recreation facilities and the permanent protection of open space for natural-resource value-added businesses.

Park visitors spend close to $1.2 billion annually and generate $150 million in tax revenue. In addition, more than 20,000 people are employed in the tourism industry there.

I have suggested to the Joint Standing Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry that the governor, in cooperation with the majority and minority members of the Legislature, appoint a temporary, seven-member citizen study commission on the future of the North Woods.

I believe funding a comprehensive, 18-month study could be available from a variety of public and private sources, and the recommendations of the study group to implement legislation — with no amendments allowed — should be submitted to the Legislature for a vote.

Unfortunately, past stakeholder-directed studies, such as the brief study that produced LD 1798, have produced piecemeal and self-serving results that lacked a comprehensive vision.

Nicholas Barth is a resident of Boothbay, a retired conservationist and former Baxter State Park ranger. He has also worked as a consultant in land use and water resources planning and management.

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