For more than 40 years, development proposals in Maine's unorganized townships have been handled in a fairly straightforward way: new construction had to be located within one road mile of a similar existing development, such as a group of cabins for rent or a canoe rental shop.
But rule changes before the state's Land Use Planning Commission (LUPC) could affect more than two million acres of land in northern and western Maine. Nearly 100 people packed a private banquet hall in Brewer Wednesday for the only public hearing LUPC has scheduled prior to an expected vote on the plan this fall.
The so-called one mile adjacency rule has worked well, according to many residents of the unorganized territories. But developers who are eager to profit from increased recreational activity in the Katahdin, Jackman and Monson areas would prefer to see different measures used. They propose new developments be allowed 10 miles from rural hubs and two miles from public roads.
“This is going to sequester a couple of million acres of unorganized territory land pretty well dedicated and open to commercial and subdivision development and I think that is a much huger footprint than the current system," Roger Merchant said.
Merchant is a former forester and member of the University of Maine's Cooperative Extension. He said that the proposal before the panel seems to broadly encourage strip development along the state's scenic byways. He also said he’s baffled by the commission’s two-year effort to rewrite development rules, which he says have served the state well for decades.
"What's the big wave coming for rural Maine that's going to require this much dedication of land specific for development? I didn't see it in the literature," Merchant said. "If the LUPC has some information that we don't have about what's coming for rural development that's going to require this extensive scope and scale, I'd like to see that information."
Others at the hearing expressed fears about how food trucks, or camping supply stores and other tourism related businesses, could change the “wilderness flavor” of the unorganized territories.
Hawk Metheny, regional director for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, said his organization would not support development near its trail heads.
“Trailheads are the access to the Appalachian Trail from a road, it's really the beginning of a visitor's experience on the AT,” he said. “They drive up, they park their car, they load their pack, they read the signs. It's the transition zone from the more developed world into the less developed experience, and if there were more development around those trailheads there would be less of that distinction from one zone to the other.”
According to LUPC staffers, the proposed rules would not alter environmental rules or conservation easements that are now in place. And they say the existing rules need to be reconsidered.
"The one-mile-rule provides a valuable tool for the commission, but it also doesn't do everything that the commission needs it to do," said Commission Director Nick Livesay.
"For instance, the one-mile-rule of thumb can actually facilitate sprawl, that's the term that was used in 1983. In 1997 and more recently you hear references to leapfrogging development as a real problem that can be associated with the one-mile rule of thumb."
But environmental activists are critical of the proposed changes. Cathy Johnson of The Natural Resources Council of Maine says the proposed rules will fragment forests and wildlife habitat.
"In addition to the 10-mile sprawl outside of towns, they're going to allow large lot subdivisions, which the Legislature abolished in 2001. They're going to bring that back," Johnson said.
The LUPC will continue to accept written comments throughout the summer and tentatively plans to act on the proposal in the fall.