Legislative Approval Expected for Four New Nominees to the Land Use Regulation Commission

By Phyllis Austin, Maine Environmental News (www.meepi.org). 3/9/04

LURC acts as the local planning and zoning board for a region that encompasses 421 townships, eight towns, 32 plantations and 424 islands

The legislative hearing March 8 was cordial and short for four new members of the Land Use Regulation Commission (LURC). The Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry (ACF) Committee gave the quartet unanimous approval, and quick confirmation was expected by the Maine Senate. The turnover in commission membership represents a significant re-formation of the policymaking board, which controls development in the vast unorganized territory.

Approved were James Nadeau of Winterville Plantation, Steve Kahl of Old Town, Carol Murtaugh of Lubec and Rebecca Kurtz of Sandy River Plantation. The vote was 9-0, with four ACF committee members absent.

Alanna Hounsell, the director of boards and commissions for Gov. John Baldacci, praised each of the LURC nominees for the depth of their experience and talents, and she predicted they would be valuable assets to LURC Ė a chronically underfunded and understaffed agency, despite its 10.5 million-acre jurisdiction.

Each of the nominees had at least one enthusiastic supporter. There was no testimony from environmental groups or other special interests involved in LURC politics. However, representatives of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, Maine Audubon Society, the Maine Forest Products Council and Plum Creek Timber Co. were on hand to observe the proceeding.

The hearing likely would have been a contentious ordeal that would have packed the committee room if Gov. John Baldacci had gone forward with the candidacy of Gordon Mott of Lakeville, a professional forester, teacher and author who raised and kept coyotes for many years. Mott was interviewed by a representative of the governorís office for a seat on LURC.

Snaring supporters complained about Mott to the office, and later Mott was told that his candidacy could not go forward Ė at least for awhile. Some ACF members were aware of the calls against Mott. They did not bring the coyote issue up at the hearing for the four nominees. LURC has no jurisdiction over coyotes.

As for the four appointees who were confirmed, Karin Tilberg, deputy commissioner of the Department of Conservation (DOC), said after the hearing that "taken as a group, they have great geographical diversity and great knowledge of natural resources." She specifically mentioned the water quality expertise of Steve Kahl, the land use planning and lake quality knowledge of Rebecca Kurtz, the deep appreciation that Carol Murtaugh has for the unorganized territory and the hands-on municipal experience of James Nadeau. "They display tremendous commitment and seem very excited to be taking on what I think are the great challenges ahead for LURC in the next five years," Tilberg said.

The ACF committee members had relatively few questions for the nominees. Most of their interest was in how the nominees would balance the competing pressures of development and conservation. Republican Reps. Kenneth Fletcher of Winslow and Rod Carr of Lincoln asked that question of Nadeau, Kahl and Murtaugh, trying to figure out whether they were overly biased in one direction or the other. All of the nominees said, in effect, that they would be open-minded and follow LURCís rules and regulations.

Although LURC has no jurisdiction over coyotes, Gordon Mott of Lakeville was opposed for a LURC spot by supporters of coyote snaring.

The unorganized territory has no form of local government or chooses not to administer land use controls locally. Thus, LURC acts as the local planning and zoning board for the region that encompasses 421 townships, eight towns, 32 plantations and 424 islands.

The agency has a huge body of rules and regulations to oversee and enforce. It deals with about 1,200 building applications a year, ranging from small sheds and boat docks to large waterfront subdivisions. In its 30-year history, LURC has been embroiled often in hotly debated controversies over timber harvesting, lakefront building, windpower and hydropower development. A large windpower project is about to land on LURCís doorstep again, as well as another "lake concept plan" subdivision proposalĖ this time on Kingsbury Pond in Mayfield Township. (A lake concept plan allows a developer to accelerate subdivision in exchange for conservation of a portion of the land in perpetuity.)

The LURC law requires that two of the seven commissioners live in the unorganized territory, and Nadeau and Kurtz fill that requirement.

Nadeau, the town manager of Eagle Lake, has lived in Aroostook County all his life, and most of his work life has been that of a municipal official. He has been an assessor and selectman for 27 years in Eagle Lake and Portage and involved in land use ordinances in those towns. He told the ACF committee that he would add "a depth of experience" to the commission.

To Rep. Fletcherís inquiry about how he would strike a balance between development and conservation as a LURC commissioner, Nadeau responded, "I believe whatever the regulations state. Iíd not want to try to reinvent the wheel."

Rep. Linda McKee (D-Wayne), co-chair of the ACF committee, questioned Nadeau about two situations he had been involved in that appeared to be legal violations Ė one involving road construction by the town on state land and the other the taking of sand and salt out of the local pit by the state. He illuminated the panel about the circumstances, explaining that he had been acting in his professional capacity. Sen. John Martin (D-Eagle Lake), who spoke in Nadeauís behalf, said there was "nothing to it". Without identifying the source by name, Martin said the information given to Rep. McKee came from the former director of the Allagash Wilderness Waterway (Tim Caverly). "I suspect the email was aimed at me," he said. "I had a 10-year run-in with him." The committee didnít pursue the matter.

Steve Kahl, the director of the Mitchell Center for Environmental and Watershed Research and a geochemist at the University of Maine at Orono, told the legislators that he had been on former Gov. John McKernan and Gov. Angus Kingís "short list" of candidates for LURC. He appeared thrilled to have finally been nominated, following many years of research and travel throughout LURCís jurisdiction.

Besides heading up the Mitchell Center, Kahl is president-elect of the National Institutes for Water Resources, an organization made up of 54 research institutes nationwide. His four-page resume of experience mentioned that he had authored 109 papers, reports and journal publications.

Referring to the 109 papers, Rep. Carr also asked Kahl how he would balancing the environment and development. "Iíve been right down the middle of the road on those 109 papers," Kahl said, adding that Carr was "getting at the economy" with his question. While being "sensitive" to economic concerns, Kahl said that "environmental quality will be the key to our economic future . . . we need to protect the environment." Kahl mentioned a previous study he was involved with that found Maineís lakes are a more valuable economic asset than Bath Iron Works -- but that the financial benefit is spread throughout the state.

Democratic Sens. Mary Cathcart and Matt Dunlap, both of Old Town, and retired state biologist Matt Scott spoke in behalf of Kahl. "He is a scientist but not an ideologue," said Dunlap. Kahl "asks a lot of annoying questions," said Dunlap, speaking from personal experience with Kahl on a committee. But Kahlís persistence added much to the work of the group, the lawmaker said. "He makes no assumptions. He gets answers to real questions."
Carol Murtaugh, a retired registered nurse, made no bones about it Ė she was overjoyed to have an opportunity to serve on the LURC commission. It "excites" and "fascinates" her, the former New Jersey resident said, calling Lubec and Maine "paradise."

Murtaugh, who has lived in Maine 10 years, has extensive experience in the health and human services community. She has been on a number of committees and commissions, from the Nurse Advisory Committee for the U. S. Department of health and Human Services in Washington, D. C., to the Coalition to Prevent Domestic Violence in Lubec.

Her enthusiasm brought smiles to the commission and members of the audience. She said she "supports the Maine way of doing things". She believes in "orderly development in the service of improving the economy," and at the same time she wants to "preserve as much as possible" the relatively unspoiled character of LURCís jurisdiction. "Iím a willing and quick learner," she said. "I have a learning addiction Ė for which I need no cure. Iím compassionate and understanding," she added.

Rep. Carr asked Murtaugh whether she would be friendlier to new development or upgrades to existing development. "Iíd tend to look at both the same," she said. "Iíd need to know the differences, to look at the impact . . . but wouldnít favor one over the other."

Rebecca Kurtz, a biologist working with the Rangeley Lakes Heritage Trust (RLHT) in Oquossoc, anticipated Carrís question and offered that she would "strike a balance" between the environment and the economy. However, she said she wouldnít "shrink" from making tough decisions as a commissioner. Invoking the late U. S. Sen. Edmund Muskieís memorable phrase, Kurtz said Maine "can have both payrolls and pickerel."

Kurtz is the invasive plant program director the Rangeley Trust and the director for EcoVenture, the organizationís environmental day camp. She is also president of the Rangeley Lakes Association. Nancy Perlson, the executive director of the land trust, commended Kurtz for her "spirit of balancing" environmental and economic matters.

At the end of the hearing, Rep. McKee congratulated the nominees, telling them they have "an awesome responsibility. We wish you well."

LURCís longest-serving member, Steve Wight, was in the audience and quipped that the four nominees received a "kinder and gentler" reception than he did four years ago.

At the time of his last reappointment by Gov. King, Wight became a target of the Sportsmanís Alliance of Maine (SAM). SAM tried to scuttle Wightís nomination because of positions he had taken on development proposals that angered the alliance. Wight has served for 17 years, and his term is up in August. He is interested in serving another four years.

Go to archive of Phyllis Austin Reports for Maine Environmental News (www.meepi.org).