A deer stands in a yard in November 2016 in Oxbow North Township. About 100 people weighed in at a public hearing Wednesday in Brewer about a proposal to change some development restrictions in the state’s Unorganized Territory, with most saying it could lead to further fragmentation of Maine’s North Woods. Credit: Micky Bedell

Officials who oversee development in the state’s Unorganized Territory were urged Wednesday to not make rule changes that critics say could create sprawl in the Maine woods and undermine development in northern municipalities.

Approximately 100 people attended a public hearing Wednesday in Brewer by the Land Use Planning Commission to solicit comment on a proposal that would change the commission’s development restrictions in the state’s Unorganized Territory, which comprises more than 10 million acres of land, mostly woods, that lie outside the boundaries of Maine’s cities and towns.

Currently, the commission requires that all commercial and subdivision development be within 1 mile of a similar existing development. The proposed change would allow commercial development to occur up to 10 miles from the boundary of communities designated as “retail hubs” by the commission, as long as they also are within 2 miles of a public road.

The change would set a limit on how far away commercial or subdivision development can occur outside more than 40 municipalities and plantations identified by the commission as retail hubs. The current 1 mile rule, over time, theoretically could allow limitless development as projects spring up one after another, commission staff have said.

But many who spoke Wednesday said the proposal could rapidly increase the pace and scope of development in the UT at the expense of nearby towns, some of which have suffered economically with the decline of Maine’s paper mill industry. Development in rural Maine should be encouraged in existing towns and not in abutting unorganized townships, they said.

“We believe the proposed rules will encourage development outside, rather than within, municipalities,” Aaron Megquier, executive director of Friends of Baxter State Park, told the commission. “It could be the nail in the coffin for Millinocket, Patten and other struggling communities.”

One speaker after another urged the commission to reduce the scope of its proposed changes, which some said could affect wildlife habitat and could subject many lakes to increased development. The scope of the proposal, which would apply to more than 1.8 million acres not under conservation easements or wetland protections, likely would result in unintended consequences, some of which could be irreversible, several speakers said. No one spoke in favor of the proposed changes.

Jeff Pidot, who for many years served as the staff’s legal counsel and staff director, said the proposed changes would undermine, rather than strengthen, the commission’s policy of concentrating development in existing areas and preserving undeveloped tracts of woods.

“This rulemaking proposal is not a discrete and conservative refinement of your adjacency criterion,” Pidot said. “It is a drastic sea change.”

Alec Giffin, another former commission staffer, also said the changes being considered are too sweeping. He said the commission should take a more piecemeal, “surgical” approach by working with residents and organizations on a regional basis rather than coming up with one statewide formula.

“This proposal is too big [and] too ambiguous in its environmental impacts,” Giffin said.

Representatives from entities such as Natural Resources Council of Maine, Trout Unlimited, Maine Audubon, Penobscot Indian Nation, Appalachian Mountain Club and others also expressed reservations about the proposal. Several residents of the UT, including roughly a dozen people from Lexington Township in Somerset County, indicated they oppose the proposal.

Peter Crockett of Argyle Township, told the commission not to sacrifice tourism — which is growing in Maine’s UT — for the sake of allowing greater commercial development. Maine’s vast North Woods are a draw for people from outside of Maine who spend their money at businesses in nearby towns.

“Rural Maine has one resource whose value grows the more it is harvested: rural recreation,” Crockett said.

The commission will accept written comments on the proposal until Sept. 24, and written rebuttal to those comments until Oct. 1, according to Everett Worcester, the commission’s chairman. A related public hearing on new subdivision rules also being considered by the commission will be held at Jeff’s Catering in Brewer on Sept. 12.

A decision on the proposed development and subdivision rule changes is expected by the end of the year.

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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....