AUGUSTA – This afternoon at a work session in Augusta, the Joint Standing Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry voted to approve LD 1798, the LePage administration bill that would roll back 40 years of protections for the North Woods. Gov. Paul LePage met with Republican committee members earlier today to insist that they fall in line.
The work session comes two weeks after the Committee heard more than seven hours of testimony at a public hearing on LD 1798 – the vast majority of which against the bill. Specifically, 47 people, including four Republican legislators, spoke in opposition to the two most controversial rollbacks in the bill, whereas just 13 spoke in support, meaning that opponents outnumbered supporters by about a 4:1 ratio.
“We are extraordinarily disappointed by the Committee’s vote to roll back 40 years of protections for the North Woods,” said Alexandra Fields, Preservation Associate at Environment Maine. “After Gov. LePage twisted arms, the Committee rubberstamped his bill, which threatens to destroy the places we love forever.”
The Committee approved the bill with a minor amendment, leaving in provisions diminishing the scope and power of the Land Use Regulation Commission (LURC), allowing county commissioners to appoint themselves to eight of the altered Commission’s nine seats, and effectively abolishing LURC over time.
Earlier this month, legislators received 17,000 messages from citizens in every legislative district in the state urging them to protect Maine’s North Woods and reject the rollbacks contained in LD 1798. Environment Maine organized the collection of the postcards, letters, and petition signatures.
The bill, LD 1798, was written by the LePage administration based on the recommendations of the LURC Reform Commission, the task force created by the Legislature last session to decide the future of LURC. LURC was created with strong bipartisan support in 1971 to guide development and protect the character of Maine’s North Woods. The majority of the task force’s members, who were appointed by Governor Paul LePage, Senate President Kevin Raye, and House Speaker Robert Nutting, had publicly testified in favor of abolishing LURC before their meetings began.
“Though LD 1798 wouldn’t abolish LURC immediately, it stands to reduce the agency’s powers in the short term while eliminating it over time,” Fields said. “Allowing county commissioners to appoint themselves to LURC would compromise the Commission’s ability to make unbiased decisions while the ‘opt-out’ clause would give counties the ability to ‘drop out’ of LURC’s protections entirely. There’s no question that this puts our treasured places at risk.”
From here, the bill will go through language review and move to the House for consideration. A minority report is expected from committee members who oppose these dangerous rollbacks.