Where New Development Could Occur — The adjacent maps show where development could take place around several communities. The solid orange areas show zones where new industrial and commercial development and residential subdivisions are now allowed — up to seven miles from town boundaries and within a mile of a public road. The striped orange-and-white areas show where only new residential subdivisions would be allowed — up to three miles from public roads. Other possible limitations on development include such things as availability of emergency services and having a legal right of access. Shown here, the Millinocket Area. (Images courtesy Maine Land Use Planning Agency)
Where New Development Could Occur — The adjacent maps show where development could take place around several communities. The solid orange areas show zones where new industrial and commercial development and residential subdivisions are now allowed — up to seven miles from town boundaries and within a mile of a public road. The striped orange-and-white areas show where only new residential subdivisions would be allowed — up to three miles from public roads. Other possible limitations on development include such things as availability of emergency services and having a legal right of access. Shown here, the Millinocket Area. (Images courtesy Maine Land Use Planning Agency)
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Why is a Democratic governor who professes environmental concerns supporting two policies that environmentalists fear would help destroy Maine’s magnificent North Woods? Both are policies Janet Mills inherited from the administration of conservative Republican Gov. Paul LePage.

I wrote two columns in April about Mills’ support for Central Maine Power Co.’s unpopular plan to construct a giant, high-voltage transmission-line corridor through 53 miles of forest near Jackman. The line then would continue southward for 92 miles through 20 communities as it conveys Quebec electric power to Massachusetts.

But there’s another, little-known, and potentially bigger threat to the Maine Woods: Mills’ refusal to stop or suspend the Land Use Planning Commission’s recent opening to residential, commercial, and industrial development of hundreds of thousands of the state’s 10 million acres of Unorganized Territory.

The Unorganized Territory is the thinly inhabited, forested land that covers roughly the northern half of the state. LUPC is the planning, zoning and building-permit bureau for this area, where municipal government is largely absent, and logging and wilderness recreation have predominated for almost two centuries.

The Natural Resources Council of Maine (NRCM), the state’s largest environmental organization, and another big environmental group, Maine Audubon Society, had opposed LUPC’s long-gestating intention to relax its rules on development. NRCM had called it “the most sweeping proposed change in development in Maine’s unorganized townships in more than 40 years.”

When LUPC’s commissioners voted unanimously at their April 2 meeting to approve the new rules, NRCM, Maine Audubon, and other groups backed a bill in the recent legislative session, LD 1561, to suspend them.

In its testimony to legislators, Audubon noted that the Unorganized Territory, “the largest globally significant important bird area in the continental United States,” was a “baby bird factory.” The Maine Wilderness Guides Organization reminded lawmakers that “the outdoor recreation economy” depends on “beautiful, undeveloped areas.”

But Mills refused to support the bill, declining to give a reason to the NRCM. It died after the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee’s Democratic chairs, Sen. James Dill, of Old Town, and Rep. Craig Hickman, of Winthrop, voted against it, joining the committee’s Republicans. If it had emerged from the committee with united Democratic support, it might have passed in a Legislature with a considerable Democratic majority, though Mills could have vetoed it.

LUPC’s rule changes originated in 2014 during the zealously pro-development and anti-regulation LePage administration. A couple of years previous, LePage had wanted to abolish the agency entirely.

“I was acting director for part of that time, trying to do my best to help keep the agency going,” Samantha Horn recalled in an email. “It was very stressful, to be sure.” She has recently become once again LUPC’s acting director.

LePage and the Republican legislative majority did succeed in transforming the Land Use Regulatory Commission (LURC) into the Land Use Planning Commission (LUPC). The name change says a lot. Regulatory power over forestry activities and the site-permitting of big projects were moved to other agencies.

But possibly the biggest change was in how commissioners were appointed. Before the LePage era, governors appointed all nine members. Now, county commissioners from the counties with the most unorganized townships appoint eight of the LUPC commissioners; the governor, one.

This has resulted in an LUPC membership tightly representing rural and business interests. Current commissioners include a couple of farmers, a retired automotive-garage owner, a real-estate appraiser, and small-town and county officials. Two have retired from forest-industry jobs; most are older men. Probably, given the complexion of that part of Maine, they also represent politically conservative interests.

Statewide and wilderness-recreation interests are virtually unrepresented, except for hunters and fishermen. LD 1561 would have encouraged representation from “persons who reside across the State.”

(Memo to Janet Mills: The commission could really use a few hip young Portland women with tattoos who love hiking and camping, although their presence might give some of the current commissioners heart attacks.)

Big zoning changes

In an interview at her agency’s office in Augusta, Samantha Horn said the reason for the big changes is to prevent scattered development, not to have more of it, as the NRCM and its allies fear.

The most important rule change was in what is called the “adjacency principle.” Previously, new developments — for example, a residential subdivision, a restaurant, a tool-making business — were allowed only if they were within a road mile of — adjacent to — an existing, similar development. This provision was designed to prevent willy-nilly sprawl and the fragmenting of the forest.

Now, residential subdivisions and commercial and industrial development will be allowed if they are — as the crow flies — within seven miles of the town boundaries of 39 “rural hubs” and no more than a mile from a public road. That means, practically speaking, development could be encouraged as far away as 12 miles or so from a town center. The hubs include such places as Bethel, Carrabassett Valley, Farmington, Greenville, Rockwood, Jackman, Millinocket, Rangeley, and Rumford.

If emergency services — ambulances and fire departments — are available, compatible residential subdivisions would be permitted three miles from a public road in the Unorganized Territory townships that border a rural hub.

Additionally, subdivisions with large lots (11 to 25 acres each) are now allowed in limited locations. And an unknown number of lakes — the commission estimates 70-plus — that have some development already on them will be open to more development. (Some lakes are now protected that previously were not, Horn emphasizes.)

Further, businesses that serve visitors and workers in the forest — like guiding and gear-rental outfits and wood-pellet operations — will now be able to locate here and there within it, though in most instances every development needs an LUPC permit based on detailed criteria. Single-lot homes continue to be allowed throughout the Unorganized Territory.

LUPC says it wants to prevent “leapfrogging” of development along roads and focus it on communities located at the Unorganized Territory’s edge. Horn said one concern was that leapfrogging development could land on an undeveloped lake just because it was within a mile of another development. She admitted, however, that there have been only “a small number” of such instances.

LUPC’s overarching desire to accommodate development is clear. In its online Frequently Asked Questions about the new policy, the commission states: “There are some locations that would be a good fit for residential subdivisions or commercial businesses, but ... are located farther than one mile from existing, compatible development.”

As an example, the commission notes that “resource processing and extraction activities” may be hindered where they are currently located. These might be such industries as maple-sugar processing, gravel pits, and commercial water wells, Horn said.

With this openness to development, it’s not surprising that the Maine Forest Products Council — representing paper mills, logging contractors, commercial forest owners and other businesses — supported the changes and opposed LD 1561.

Not all conservation groups lined up against the new rules. The Nature Conservancy, which tries to get along with corporate interests and itself owns big tracts of timberland, testified against LD 1561. (See “Deep State: In the North Woods Power-Line Fight, Who Will Triumph? Insiders or Outsiders?” Free Press, April 25.)

Fears of sprawl

The NRCM examined the written public comments to LUPC before the April commissioners’ vote and said that 95 percent of them “raised major concerns.” These commenters included some business and government leaders from the struggling and sometimes depopulating towns next to the Unorganized Territory.

In recent decades a dozen or so of these fringe towns have “deorganized” and joined the Unorganized Territory, and the few schools within it have seen their enrollments decline. These trends have occurred because of the demise of several large paper mills, the automation of other paper mills and logging operations, and the draw of more prosperous southern Maine and beyond.

“The reason there’s no growth” in the Unorganized Territory is not LUPC’s fault,” commented Lloyd Irland, one of the state’s most experienced foresters and a former state economist. Lack of growth is because of the forest industry’s troubles and the consequent “steady shrinkage of employment.” In other words, global factors.

In any case, if economic growth is what’s desired in the Unorganized Territory, Irland said, “more sprawl is not the way to do it.”

Even though rural, forested Maine is not likely to be overrun by development anytime soon, NRCM, other groups and the worried local leaders fear the new rules will encourage a kind of sprawling suburbanization around the rural hubs, which could siphon businesses, population, and tax revenue from them.

One reason is that taxes are much lower in the Unorganized Territory than in the towns. The commission replies to the tax argument in a document: “Taxation issues ... are outside the scope of the Commission’s authority.”

Environmentalists also maintain that a major premise of LUPC’s argument is unfounded: leapfrogging development simply hasn’t occurred.

“The one-mile rule was in place for four decades, and I can think of only one time in the last 30 years, which is as far back as my experience goes, where it allowed development in an inappropriate place,” said Cathy Johnson, the NRCM’s forest and wildlife project director. “Now we have a bull’s-eye on one million acres.”

Johnson is, of course, primarily concerned with the environment. On this issue, that means keeping remote areas undeveloped, but she also believes restraint on development would enhance the economic future of the Unorganized Territory. Obviously, wilderness recreation could be hurt by overdevelopment.

Horn, who runs a $1.9-million-a-year, 20-employee agency, is a planner. She must balance economic development and environmental preservation. On this latter point, she said that the 95-page document changing the rules has many largely ignored provisions protecting wildlife habitat, remote lakes, and sensitive hillsides.

But Horn has the LUPC commissioners to serve. (“I work for these folks,” she replied, when I asked for her view of the commission’s makeup.) When she explained to me what LUPC had done, she repeatedly brought up economics, not so much conservation and environmental protection, though each of these goals is in the LUPC charter:

• This big change, she said, has been made because of the “changing economy in rural Maine.”

• LUPC wanted to “encourage the kind of economic development compatible with resources in the Unorganized Territory.”

• Allowing large-lot subdivisions was satisfying “the market demand for larger lots.” (Johnson responded: “If you’re just going to do what the market wants, you’re not doing planning.”)

• “These small villages and towns have to make a go of it.”

Horn noted that some forest landowners were “disappointed” the agency didn’t go far enough in opening up land to development.

But what has been opened up is, for sure, a big number: to be precise, 965,241 acres, although Horn pointed out this is only where development possibly could go.

(To get the true picture of what has happened, an unknown acreage — Horn said LUPC hasn’t tried to calculate it — would have to be subtracted from the 965,241. This is where development presumably will not be allowed because of the agency’s reorienting of it nearer to towns.)

Future possibilities

The agency’s hub idea makes sense, environmentalists say, but why not create rules that promote the real hubs — the suffering downtowns and central neighborhoods — of the fringe towns?

The defeated bill, LD 1561, would have aimed development toward town or village centers. It also would have required more regional planning; restricted lake development; kept the one-mile adjacency principle in place for over a year while an inventory of houses and buildings was done; and required four LUPC members to be chosen by the governor.

In politics, nothing is forever. In the future, the Legislature and the governor could change LUPC’s direction again with the passage and signing of a bill like LD 1561. But this seems unlikely. Neither the governor’s office nor Sen. Dill or Rep. Hickman returned phone calls or emails asking them to explain why they killed LD 1561. (The governor’s office, however, did arrange my interview with LUPC director Horn.)

These recent developments relating to the Unorganized Territory may be a bad omen for opponents of the CMP corridor, which partly goes through it. The pro-business LUPC commissioners are considering — as is the state Department of Environmental Protection — whether permits should be issued for the corridor. The decision is expected this fall. Horn said deliberations could begin in September.

Mills has gotten much-deserved attention for promoting far-reaching, long-range, renewable-energy goals to fight global warming. But they’re goals, and their realization will depend on future governors and legislatures — and, probably, the state’s commitment of large sums of taxpayer money.

On that last point, besides implementing Republican Gov. LePage’s agenda in supporting the CMP corridor and the new LUPC North Woods zoning, Mills also is insisting on keeping in place LePage’s tax cuts for the rich, which limit the spending possible to promote her renewable-energy goals, among other needs for state funds.

It would be ironic if this self-proclaimed environmentalist Democratic governor — who hails from Farmington, a “hub” town on the periphery of the Unorganized Territory — allowed the destruction of the Maine North Woods.

Maybe, given the global factors affecting the timberlands that have resulted in the economic struggles of the Unorganized Territory and the towns around it, nothing LUPC does will change things much.

But its little-noted zoning changes are nevertheless a huge gamble, with much of Maine at stake.