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LURC gathering public comments on its vision for Maine's North WoodsBy Kevin Miller
Friday, April 25, 2008 - Bangor Daily News
State regulators will travel throughout the state during the next two weeks to hear residents’ views on the top issues facing Maine’s Unorganized Territory and how best to balance competing uses within the region.
Maine’s Land Use Regulation Commission is in the process of updating the planning document that likely will guide policy decisions within the 10.4 million-acre Unorganized Territory for the next decade. LURC will kick off a series of public workshops on its Comprehensive Land Use Plan, known as the "CLUP," at 6 p.m. Sunday at the University of Maine at Fort Kent.
Like so many other major decisions faced by LURC in recent years, the update of the commission’s comprehensive plan is increasingly fraught with controversy.
And not surprisingly, many of the hot-button issues within the draft comprehensive plan are also at the center of the wider debate about the future of the largest chunk of undeveloped forestland east of the Mississippi River.
Several environmental groups have praised the draft for espousing the need for stronger measures to fight sprawl and protect remote areas. But large timberland owners and some sporting organizations fear the commission may be leaning too heavily in favor of "primitive" recreation.
LURC staff members, meanwhile, insist they are not taking any sides and said they hope the workshops will help dispel some rumors and misinformation about the draft plan.
"We need the majority of the public to buy into this plan," said Catherine Carroll, LURC’s staff director.
LURC last updated its comprehensive plan in 1997. Since then, much of the vast forestlands within LURC’s jurisdiction have changed hands as the large timber companies divested their holdings.
Rising interest in large, year-round homes in remote or scenic areas — as exemplified by Plum Creek’s historic development plan for the Moosehead Lake region — also has changed both the face of the land and its economic value.
"While we feel the 1997 plan is as relevant today as it was in 1997, there are concepts that have emerged since 1997 that we feel we need to address," Carroll said.
Foremost among those emerging trends, Carroll and other LURC staff members said, is development pressure in remote areas.
Roughly 8,800 new dwellings have been permitted in the Unorganized Territory since the Legislature created LURC in 1971 to oversee development and zoning in the region. Forty-five percent of that development occurred near existing communities or infrastructure or in areas deemed appropriate for growth.
"The other 55 percent has occurred in what we consider is not a healthy pattern," said Fred Todd, manager of the commission’s planning and administration division. "The problem is there is nothing in our commission rules or regulatory authority that would keep us from allowing this sprawling development from happening into the future."
The staff also offers this statistic: 72 percent of the new dwellings permitted by LURC were on lots that were part of subdivisions that legally bypassed the commission’s process for preventing development in inappropriate locations.
The Legislature, not LURC, must approve most changes to subdivision policies. But the draft CLUP offers a list of options for addressing sprawl, including restrictions on the type, density or scale of development in some areas and limiting new dwellings in highest-risk areas to small, traditional camps.
Staff members also have said the state may want to consider revisiting the "2-in-5 rule," which allows landowners to create two lots in five years without going through a subdivision review.
But some landowners’ groups read more into the possible changes.
In a document titled "Why you should be concerned about the direction of the new CLUP," the Maine Forest Products Council said the CLUP "extinguishes development rights without compensation."
"Implementation of the new CLUP would impose severe restrictions on the ability to sell land for camp development or construct or improve a camp on private property," the document states. "These new regulations will leave property owners with only value for timber and access rights, increasing pressure to generate income from these sources."
In another part of the primer, the council predicted the CLUP could allow future commissions to "aggressively restrict forest management." But the offensive language cited from the 2008 draft CLUP is identical to that in the 1997 plan.
Several groups — including the Maine Snowmobile Association and the Maine Professional Guides Association — have also expressed concerns about what they see as the over-emphasis on "primitive" or "backcountry" recreation.
The groups believe such words could be used to justify closing areas to snowmobiles, ATVs or other forms of mechanized recreation, thereby shutting down a valuable source of income to rural communities.
Rep. Troy Jackson, an Allagash Democrat who requested that a workshop be held in Fort Kent, said such words carry powerful meanings that differ from person to person. As an example, he pointed to the long-standing battles over interpretations of the word "wilderness" within the Allagash Wilderness Waterway.
"I just think they need to be taken out," Jackson said of the words "primitive" and "backcountry."
"It’s already clear how divisive some language can be," he added.
Todd and Carroll said the draft does not value one form of recreation over another, instead stressing the need for diverse recreational opportunities throughout the territory. But the staff does recognize, Todd said, that the potential for conflicts between nonmechanized and mechanized recreation is increasing.
Diano Circo, the North Woods policy advocate for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said the earliest LURC documents emphasized the importance of protecting the territory’s "remoteness" and access to the woods for primitive recreation.
As the number of snowmobile and ATV trails expands in Maine, options for professional guides, hikers, campers and paddlers who want "primitive" experiences are decreasing, Circo said.
"These are the only places left where you can have these experiences in the East, and they need to be protected," he said. "The North Woods is a big place, and there is room for everything."
LURC will hold formal public hearings later this year before voting on a final update to the comprehensive plan. The Legislature also would have to approve the new plan.
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