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Eric Jarvi is an at-large member of the Hampden Town Council and deputy mayor. These opinions are his and do not necessarily reflect the views of the council or staff.

A 1969 amendment to the Maine Constitution delegated broad “home rule” ordinance powers to cities and towns, where “home rule” is defined by Merriam-Webster, “as self-government or limited autonomy in internal affairs by a dependent political unit.” Cities and towns have the right to pass laws that are municipal in nature and are not counter to a state law or a law which the state has not prohibited it from passing.

In June 2021, the Commission to Increase Opportunities in Maine by Studying Zoning and Land Use Restrictions was established. The commission report contained nine recommendations for legislative consideration, most focusing on zoning and land use restrictions at a statewide level that directly affect the availability and affordability of housing stock where “affordable housing” describes dwellings that an individual or household can reasonably afford, which is generally held to be less than 30 percent of the household income.

“Affordable housing” must be a priority, but how we as a state approach that issue must be thoughtfully and fairly addressed without resorting to excessively harsh measures. LD 1673 An Act to Create a Comprehensive Permit Process for the Construction of Affordable Housing, is currently going through committee as one of several possible measures to address the commission recommendations.

This legislation was sponsored by Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, and co-sponsored by five other Democratic representatives and two Democratic senators. Of these sponsors, six are from designated “urban” Maine areas, which in the 2010 census represented only 39 percent of the state population, a number that admittedly will likely be higher based on the recent census. This is not to suggest that “affordable housing” is only an urban issue, but the sustainable solutions likely are much different given the disparity in demographics and fiscal resources between Maine’s urban and rural municipalities.

The Committee on Labor and Housing, chaired by Rep. Michael Sylvester, D-Portland, and Sen. Mattie Daughtry, D-Brunswick, convened a public hearing on Feb. 14 concerning LD 1673 and a preponderance of oral and written testimony supports the legislation. Operationally, however, it was discouraging that the co-chairs chose to front end load supporting oral testimony, relegating opposing statements to the later part of the hearing at which point many had chosen to log off from the meeting after waiting several hours to speak. Balanced testimony from opposing sides would have been a more principled and parliamentary correct approach. The bulk of opposing testimony unfortunately is in written form.

The backbone of LD 1673 shifts decision making authority from board or appointed (or peer elected) residents to a Maine State Housing Authority “Affordable Housing Appeals Committee” authorized to hold hearings and to consider and decide upon appeal from a board of appeal denial of a comprehensive permit or grant of a comprehensive permit with conditions rendering the housing project uneconomical.

Opposing written testimony by Kate Dufour of the Maine Municipal Association, points out that, as drafted, the MSHA review process authorizes adoption of rules for the conduct of their business and provides those rules to the municipality, seemingly without community input. Is it even reasonable that a five-member review committee (renewable, one-year appointment) would have the time, resources, and information necessary to evaluate decisions for adherence to the planning goals and infrastructure needs of the hundreds of Maine communities? Dufour’s testimony concludes by saying, “A successful plan, reflecting some of the recommendations of the Housing Commission, is one that is focused on the development of measurable goals, assessment of which level of government is better suited to implement mutually beneficial strategies, and investment in financial and technical resources necessary to deliver statewide goals.”  

I implore the members of the Committee on Labor and Housing to vote “ought-not- to-pass” until such time as the intent and process of the legislation is more thoughtfully structured rather than attempting to pass a statute based on current House and Senate majorities.