BELFAST, Maine — A public hearing Wednesday to gather suggestions on ways to improve Maine’s regulatory environment instead turned into a referendum on Gov. Paul LePage’s controversial proposals to rewrite or roll back dozens of environmental laws.
And most of the midcoast residents who spoke had a clear message for lawmakers.
“Please don’t gut what we’ve got,” said Diane Allmayer-Beck of Belfast. “We have the most beautiful state in the union. Don’t ruin it.”
Wednesday’s meeting was the second of seven public hearings being held by the Legislature’s Committee on Regulatory Fairness and Reform in locations around the state. The committee of 15 legislators — nine Republicans and six Democrats — is charged with writing an omnibus regulatory reform bill.
“We’re looking for real solutions to real problems,” Sen. Jonathan Courtney, R-Springvale, and committee co-chairman, told the more than 60 people gathered at the University of Maine Hutchinson Center in Belfast.
But what the committee heard, for the most part, was how many problems would result if the Legislature approved the regulatory reform proposals that have come out of the Governor’s Office.
“The unofficial slogan of Maine is if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” said Marina Delune, a Belfast city councilor. “As a native Mainer, I would urge you to be very careful about gutting any regulations that are protecting our state. … Our livelihood depends on the beauty of our state.”
LePage’s first batch of reform proposals would make sweeping changes to the state’s environmental and land use laws. The more controversial proposals include:
- Replacing the Board of Environmental Protection with an administrative law judge system to hear appeals.
- Replacing many of Maine’s air and water pollution standards with less stringent federal standards.
- Repealing new rules that require the chemical bisphenol-A, or BPA, to be phased out of children’s products sold in Maine.
- Rezoning at least 30 percent of the Unorganized Territory for development.
- Eliminating the Land Use Regulation Commission’s “adjacency” standard for new development as well as significantly rewriting other standards.
LePage spokesman Dan Demeritt said Maine is a special place because residents are good stewards of natural resources.
“Our expensive, toughest-in-the nation regulations are crippling investment and job creation in Maine,” Demeritt said in an e-mail Wednesday evening. “For 40 years, Maine’s U.S. senators have helped write our federal environmental regulations. Governor LePage believes conforming with federal standards and making other common sense reforms can help put Mainers back to work while still providing needed safeguards for our environment.”
Many of the more than two dozen people who testified Wednesday focused on LePage’s proposals, much to the dismay of committee leaders who repeatedly told the crowd they were in Belfast to hear reform suggestions. The committee will hold a public hearing on the governor’s proposal later this winter, they said.
“This is a listening tour,” Courtney said.
“Then please listen!” someone in the increasingly fired-up crowd shouted back.
“It might not fit into your neat little box,” a clearly agitated Diane Messer of Liberty told Courtney, “but we are here because we are concerned about threats to our well-being and we are concerned about threats to our way of life.”
Co-chairman Rep. Jonathan McKane, R-Newcastle, assured the crowd, however, that the committee was not about to rubber-stamp the governor’s reform package and that “every single proposal he puts forward is going to be thoroughly vetted.”
The tone of the hearing eventually settled down and a number of people shared personal experiences with problematic regulations.
Bob Ramsdell, chairman of the Searsport Shellfish Management Committee, said his group has been trying for several years to reopen shellfish beds that have been closed since 2007 because of pollution.
Ramsdell said his group has taken numerous steps to prevent fecal bacteria from entering the water and he believes the water is clean.
But the Maine Department of Marine Resources requires 20 clean samples to be collected before declaring the beds safe for harvesting.
“The problem is DMR doesn’t have the manpower to come up and do the testing,” Ramsdell said. “But also at the state level, they need to have some flexibility.”
Sam Mitchell, who works in real estate in Belfast, said Maine requires a separate lead paint disclaimer form that is identical to a federal disclaimer. He also suggested adopting federal standards for radon and tweaking the law on building near vernal pools.
David Foley, who runs a small architectural firm in Northport, said in his 17 years he has never experienced problems with Maine’s regulations when they are implemented as written. He has had problems, however, with inconsistent interpretation of those regulations and lack of enforcement of rules.
But like many in the crowd, Foley spent most of his time attacking LePage’s proposals, which he called a “full-blown car wreck” that would hurt the business climate by harming Maine’s environment.
“This is a crucial moment,” Foley said. “Let’s not blow it.”
The Committee on Regulatory Fairness and Reform will hold its next meeting Monday afternoon at the University of Maine at Machias.
Information on the committee is available at www.maine.gov/legis/house/jt_com/rfr.htm.