A deer stands in a yard in Oxbow North Township, which deorganized from being a plantation in 2017, in this November 2016 file photo. Conservation groups have raised concerns about a proposal to change some development restrictions in the state's Unorganized Territory, saying it could lead to further fragmentation of Maine's North Woods. Credit: BDN File Photo

Conservation groups in Maine on Wednesday urged state officials not to expand the distance limit that determines where subdivisions and commercial projects can be built in the state’s Unorganized Territory.

The Land Use Planning Commission is considering a change in policy that would allow zoning changes to occur in unorganized areas of the state within at least 10 linear miles of the boundary of a designated “retail hub” community — an area that encompasses 1.8 million mostly undevelope d acres, not including land protected from development by conservation restrictions.

Under the commission’s current policy, any new subdivision or commercial development in unorganized townships has to be within one road mile of existing similar development.

The commission has said that the so-called one-mile rule is overly blunt and can result in a “leapfrogging” effect in which each development can serve as a springboard for another development a mile or less down the road, without concern to how close it may be to any of more than 40 retail hubs identified by the commission. And it doesn’t differentiate between types of commercial development, or whether some types of commercial development may be suitable in the area where they are proposed.

But conservation groups think the proposed change would not be an improvement over the current policy. Even when requiring new development to be no more than 10 miles away from certain towns, the new proposal could lead to more intense development in Maine’s North Woods, they said.

“We believe the [proposed] rule changes threaten the scenic beauty” of the Unorganized Territory, Claire Polfus of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy told the commission Wednesday during a meeting in Bangor. “This type of development could cause habitat fragmentation and public safety concerns.”

If rapid development were to occur, retail hub towns that provide emergency services to abutting townships could find their fire or ambulance departments overburdened and facing financial hardship, opponents said.

Representatives from Trout Unlimited, Appalachian Mountain Club, Maine Audubon, The Nature Conservancy, Natural Resources Council of Maine and Grow Smart Maine also urged the commission Wednesday not to change the distance limit.

Under the proposed policy, any land less than two miles from a public road and less than 10 aerial miles from a retail hub — or in such a hub — would be considered “primary” locations for subdivision or commercial development. Land that is less than five miles away from a public road and which abuts a retail hub community would be considered “secondary” locations for potential development.

Land within those distances but already subject to conservation deed or easement restrictions, or to other limitations such as wetland protections, would not be affected by the proposal.

Some opponents at the meeting said the proposed changes could affect scenic byways, allowing development along forested stretches of public roads where it currently is not allowed. Sections of Route 11 in Aroostook County, Route 201 in Somerset County, Route 27 in Franklin County, and Grand Lake Road in Penobscot County all could be more heavily developed with the rule change.

“That’s really going to change the character of the area,” Kaitlyn Bernard of the Appalachian Mountain Club told the commission.

Some at Wednesday’s meeting voiced support for the proposed changes. John Kelly of land management firm Prentiss & Carlisle called the current one-mile rule “arbitrary and a bit inflexible.”

Sarah Medina of Seven Islands Land Company said the firm is in favor of relaxing the one-mile restriction but does not want to lose the ability to develop land it owns more than 10 miles away from a retail hub. Fish Lake in Aroostook County, she said, is one of those areas.

“In general, we’re supportive of this change,” she said. “We urge you to reconsider [the 10-mile limit].”

The commission expects to schedule more public hearings on the proposed changes before possibly taking a final vote sometime this fall.

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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....