Credit: George Danby

It’s hardly a startling headline that rural Maine is in crisis. In fact, the face of rural Maine has been a sporting a series of fresh bruises as a regular occurrence since the 1890s. The utter collapse of the farm economy, the demise of the ubiquitous shipyards and the sawmills that fed them, and the gradual, inexorable decline of papermaking has shaped the prospects for prosperity for which people in rural Maine tirelessly strive.

One of Gov. Paul LePage’s first and most strident initiatives when he came into office was to eliminate the State Planning Office and overhaul the Land Use Regulatory Commission. With the help of the Legislature, the regulatory commission was eliminated and replaced with a much more development-friendlier Land Use Planning Commission, which now is charged with planning for the Maine’s 10.5 million-acre Unorganized Territory. With about six months left in the LePage administration, the planning commission is proposing what may be the most sweeping changes to the rules of development in the Unorganized Territory since its predecessor was created in 1971.

The rule changes apply to what is generally referred to as the Adjacency Principle. Under the Adjacency Principle, new development should be confined within one mile of existing, established compatible development. This principle protects existing natural resources, as well as orderly, sustainable growth and the understanding and assessment of the impact of proposed development before lunging into expansion. Under its proposed rules, the commission is modifying the Adjacency Principle profoundly and may be risking allowing sprawling, haphazard development at the expense of our natural resources and rural communities.

Mainers should be concerned about the commission’s proposals. Not only would these this proposals put at risk fisheries and outdoor recreation opportunities, but also could forever close opportunities for management of the forest resources in areas where new development is anticipated.

These sweeping changes deserve close scrutiny by the public, but have been quietly wending their way through the rulemaking process. As chair of the legislative committee of jurisdiction, I only learned about the proposal a few weeks ago. I’m concerned that the people that would be most impacted by these sweeping changes also aren’t in the loop.

Perhaps most importantly, why is no one asking how all of this is to be supported? If the intended development does indeed occur and more residents and visitors are attracted, there will be a need for increased services. The bill for these services will fall to you, me and the rest of Maine taxpayers.

This session, the Legislature voted to allow the town of Atkinson in Piscataquis County to deorganize and become a part of the Unorganized Territory. The town still has to vote — for the fourth time — for such a move, and if it does, it will join the more than 40 towns in Maine over the last 100 years that have deorganized. These towns still have residents and they still may need a fire put or a pothole repaired. But once a town deorganizes, the responsibility for emergency services, road maintenance and even trash disposal falls on the rest of us through higher county and state taxes.

Not mentioned anywhere in the proposed rule changes is planning for such a contingency. Will the commission propose the organization of new towns, complete with governments and tax policies to pay for services to clusters of high-end seasonal camps that will undoubtedly demand them? And who will manage utilities and the emergency services this new population base will require? Once these changes are made, history shows that the effects are permanent, and that will impact us all.

The commission will hold a public hearing on its proposal at Jeff’s Catering in Brewer at 1 p.m. on June 20. The public should go and ask commissioner for answers to these questions, and if they don’t have them, ask them to slow down and let the Legislature review the proposal. If the proposal has merit, it will certainly gain the support from the public. If it doesn’t work and goes forward, we’ll be regretting it for a very long time.

Michelle Dunphy, D-Old Town, is the House chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry.

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