The Land Use Planning Commission is considering a proposal that could change subdivision or commercial development restrictions in roughly 1.8 million acres in the Unorganized Territory in Maine.

Part of that area already allows such development within one mile of existing, similarly developed areas. Development of single residential lots is and would continue to be allowed in most locations throughout the Unorganized Territory, which consists of 10.4 million acres in Maine.

The commission is considering changing restrictions on the development of subdivisions and commercial projects so that in some areas they can be located further away from existing development or public roads. The change would allow such development to occur up to 10 miles away from communities designated as “retail hubs” by the commission, as long as they also are within two miles of a public road.

“We find this to be a really crude instrument,” Everett Worcester, chairman of the commission, said Tuesday about the current one-mile policy. “We struggle with this on an ongoing basis when people come in with proposals.”

In a statement posted on its website, the commission says its “service area is a big place, and a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t always mean new development happens in the most suitable locations.”

Nicholas Livesay, executive director of the commission, said in an email that despite the increased distances that would be allowed between newly developed lots, the new policy would help to restrict development in the Unorganized Territory by requiring subdivisions or commercial projects to be within 10 miles of any one of more than 40 municipalities and plantations identified by the commission as “retail hubs.”

The current policy allows for “leapfrogging,” he said, in which new subdivisions or commercial projects can spring up further away from those retail hubs as long as none of them is more than a mile away by road access from the nearest similar development.

He said the commission could adopt the changes by the end of the year, after holding a formal public hearing sometime this summer.

The current siting standards are referred to as the commission’s “adjacency principle,” which was adopted years ago with the goal of concentrating development in the Unorganized Territory in pre-existing clusters and to keep large undeveloped tracts of wilderness intact.

Under the proposed change, a total of 2.46 million acres lie within the area that would be subject to the altered development restrictions.

Of that, more than 1.7 million acres is less than two miles from a public road and less than 10 miles away from any one of the designated retail hubs. Land that meets these requirements, and any land that is less than two miles from a public road which itself is in a town or a plantation, would be considered “primary” locations for subdivision or commercial development.

This does not include approximately 420,000 acres within those primary distance limits that are under existing conservation restrictions.

An additional 712,000 acres of land that are less than five miles away from a public road and which abut a municipality or plantation that serves as a retail hub would lie within an area designated as “secondary” locations for potential development. More than 235,000 acres within these secondary distance standards already are under conservation restrictions and would remain protected from development.

The amount of land within the proposed primary and secondary development areas not under conservation restrictions is a little more than 1.8 million acres. Aside from conservation restrictions, other existing development limitations such as wetland protections would remain in effect in the designated primary and secondary development areas.

Natural Resources Council of Maine is opposed to changing the development standards. In an email sent out last week to supporters, the conservation group said the one-mile policy has helped boost investment in existing service centers and protect pristine backcountry areas from development.

“This policy has protected wildlife habitat in undeveloped parts of Maine’s North Woods for more than four decades, and it should not be discarded,” Carly Peruccio, the group’s forests and wildlife outreach coordinator, wrote in the email.

Worcester said the commission has been reviewing the principle for the past two years, but that it may end up keeping it as is, without any changes. He said if the commission changes its development policy, he does not think it would result in “rampant development” in the Unorganized Territory.

“It’s more conceptual than real” at this point, Worcester said.

A public information meeting on the proposed change is scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday, April 5, at the Baxter State Park office in Millinocket. In addition, the commission is expected to accept public comment on the proposal when it meets at 9 a.m. Wednesday, April 11 at Spectacular Event Center on Griffin Road in Bangor.

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Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....