Russ Black Emerges As Hero on LURC Reform

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We’re getting to the end of the Book of LURC and may have been given a sneak peak at the story’s ending this week. It’s certainly obvious now that Representative Russell Black is the hero in this ongoing saga. It’s rare that one legislator can stand up to his or her leadership and governor and come out the winner. Black just did.

In Chapter One, Governor Paul LePage proposed to abolish the Land Use Regulation Commission, the regulatory and planning authority for the half of the state not organized into municipalities including what we fondly refer to as the North Woods.

In Chapter Two, the legislature rejected the Governor’s proposal and broke out into an ugly partisan battle over differing versions of a bill to create a task force to study the issues and make recommendations. Being in the majority, Republicans enacted their version of the task force.

In Chapter three, to the surprise of some, outstanding members were appointed by the governor and legislative leaders to the task force who worked very well together and unanimously issued a comprehensive list of recommendations.

The study group recommended that LURC retain its planning authority but work more closely with landowners, local residents, counties and regional planning and economic professionals. The Department of Environmental Protection would govern all large projects and the Forest Service would handle forest management permitting.

In and outside the legislature, there was division on only two recommendations, one minor, one major. The minor issue would have county commissioners appoint LURC’s board with no oversight or approval process. The major issue involved a recommendation that counties be able to “opt out” of the new system by taking on LURC’s duties. This is where it’s gotten ugly, especially for Representative Black.

I thought – and wrote – that Russ was right. Offering counties a chance to opt out of LURC undermines the new process, sending a signal, with a wink and a nod, that we’re not serious about it; telling counties, hey, if you don’t like it, you can opt out.

By the middle of this book, the committee’s work sessions took on the look of a comedy, albeit a dark one. After I posted a report in this blog of one particularly dysfunctional work session, I was subsequently informed that I could no longer access the ACF’s stash of candy. And I was just writing about what they were doing!

So you can imagine the pressure on Russ, the only Republican committee member to oppose the opt out option. I’ve known, liked, and respected Russ for many years, and my respect has only grown as I watched him stand up to the pressure on this important issue. He is smart, sensible, sincere, and when necessary, stubborn. And boy was he stubborn on opt out!

Pulled into partisan caucuses by other Republican committee members and the governor’s attorney, Dan Billings, Russ was pounded relentlessly. While the environmental community praised and supported him, many of his closest friends made his life miserable as they constantly pressured him to support the opt out provision.

At one point, one of his most important bills on maple syrup, was held up in the Senate, and he was told to stop talking to people about the issue. At the end of an ACF Committee work session the next day, Russ stormed out of the room, slamming the door and adding an exclamation mark to the whole sordid story.

That may have been the defining moment when his Republican friends understood that he would not be caving in to their demands. ACF Committee member Jeff Timberlake headed up to Wilton to meet with Russ and Senator Tom Saviello.

Saviello’s late entry into the discussion was a good move. He’s not on the ACF Committee, is widely respected for his nonpartisan leadership of the legislature’s Natural Resources Committee, and is Russ’s close friend and ally, serving the same region of the state.

The three of them created an opt out provision that Russ could support.

Black’s proposal would allow counties to opt out of LURC’s jurisdiction and take over its planning and other duties, beginning in September 1, 2017. But the process the county would have to go through to do that is so costly and difficult that no county will ever select that option.

As described by the ACF Committee’s analyst, the county’s proposal to opt out would have to be reviewed by the appropriate legislative committee and approved by the entire legislature. The county would have to provide examples of planning, zoning or permitting decisions by LURC that prompted the country to request the chance to withdraw from LURC’s jurisdiction.

LURC would have the authority to review administration and enforcement of a county’s land use plans and regulation, and could re-establish LURC’s authority for those functions if the county’s work was found wanting.

Essentially, the opt out option remains in place, allowing its supporters to make a political statement that LURC had better shape up and fly right or lose its authority, while understanding that no county would actually be able to do it.

This satisfies most people. Even some of the large landowners who have been advocating for the opt out provision to keep pressure on LURC to do a good job, don’t really want to have their land governed by several different counties.

The ACF Committee adopted Black’s amendment in a straight party line vote. Democratic committee members supported a similar version of the bill, without the opt out and some slight changes in the way LURC members are selected and appointed.

Environmental groups ended up divided, with one key player expressing dismay with both versions, but reluctantly supporting the Democrat’s amended bill, telling me, “It makes some reasonable reforms that address many of the concerns raised about LURC.  It is not perfect and there remain other problems, but the minority report fixes the worst of the problems in the majority report.”

Another lobbyist for an environmental group was the first to call me after the committee vote, to praise Russ Black’s effort. Given that legislating is all about the art of compromise, Russ Black was a real artist on this one.

As the two versions now make their way through the House and Senate, and we get toward the end of this Book of LURC, Republicans are certain to endorse the majority report that includes Russ Black’s amendment.

And when the final chapter is printed in the newspapers and reported on radio and television, it’s unlikely the hero of the story will be front and center. You probably won’t even hear his name mentioned. And he wouldn’t want that. So let’s keep this to ourselves.

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