MACHIAS, Maine — Down East residents sent a clear message to Gov. Paul LePage on Monday: Keep environmental protections in place, and do not water them down by adopting federal standards, but ease the cumbersome permitting process that often hampers development and growth.
More than 130 people attended a remote hearing of the Joint Standing Committee on Regulatory and Fairness Reform at the University of Maine at Machias.
The governor created the 15-member committee to work on the first bill of the new session: LD 1, An Act to Ensure Regulatory Fairness and Reform, which is intended to remove impediments to Maine’s business climate. In October, Forbes magazine ranked Maine dead last in its list of best states for business.
The Machias meeting was the third of seven across the state intended to gather information and suggestions to be used to make recommendations to LePage.
Dozens of Washington and Hancock county residents spoke to the committee, while many more sat and listened.
Robert Hammond of Harrington told of his attempt to convert 2½ acres of blueberry land into cranberry bogs. “I was told by the [Maine Department of Environmental Protection] that I needed a permit. You don’t need a permit to grow turnips, but apparently you do for cranberries.”
When Hammond opted not to pay a $170 fee for an after-the-fact permit because he felt it would be an admission he did something wrong, a massive red-tape process was triggered. He said it involved the Maine DEP, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal Environmental Protection Agency, two flyovers to get aerial photographs of his land, and costly surveys to determine whether his land was wet or dry.
“On my land, you can stand in mud up to your ass and get dust in your eyes at the same time,” he told the committee.
The process dragged on for months. “There needs to be some fair balance,” Hammond said.
Mary Thompson of Addison, also a farmer, decried heavy-handed regulations. “We want regulations that are clear, uniform, easy to understand,” she said. “And we don’t want them arbitrarily interpreted.”
Interpretation by two separate agencies also is likely to cost Victor Trafford of Lubec tens of thousands of dollars. He said he is creating six rental spaces and a restaurant above a seafood processing plant. Although state building codes allow his units to have sliding glass doors, the State Fire Marshal’s Office agent said all 14 of the doors must be replaced.
“The take-away from this meeting should be that there might be room for tweaking but not an assault on the environment,” Jeanne Guisinger of Perry told the committee. “That would be disastrous on the ecosystems that pump money into our county. Maybe what you should hold a hearing on is what is working now and build on that.”
“We need a vision and a plan,” Linda Cross Godfrey of Eastport said. “Maine needs to move from 50th to 15th, then fifth and then number one.”
Some of the suggestions presented to the committee in the three-hour hearing included:
• Install a small-business ombudsman to help new owners through the state regulation and permitting process.
• Develop public transportation in Washington County.
• Streamline the regulatory process to enable seafood processing plants to thrive Down East.
• Change the shoreland zoning setback from 250 feet to 100 feet.
• Comb the DEP regulations for redundancy and create uniformity.
• Provide additional staff for the DEP.
• Allow for individualization of regulations rather than a “cookie-cutter approach.”
• Eliminate the Board of Pesticide Control and have all pesticide issues fall under the DEP.
• Extend tax increment financing districts, state grants and Pine Tree Zones to include small farms.
For a full list of public hearings, including dates and places, visit www.mainespeaker.org/maine-legislative-leaders-announce-regulatory-reform-committee-statewide-tour.