At Red Tape Audit, LePage’s environmental proposals cause concern

Posted Feb. 04, 2011, at 10:37 a.m.
Last modified Feb. 05, 2011, at 6:07 p.m.

AUBURN, Maine — There was no screaming Thursday at a forum on regulatory fairness. No chairs where flung and voices barely got above the levels necessary to be heard in a school auditorium.

There was, however, passion.

One by one, business owners, outdoor enthusiasts, environmental activists and ordinary people stood at a podium to address the Maine Legislature’s Joint Select Committee on Regulatory Fairness and Reform on its so-called “Red Tape Tour.”

At issue was Gov. Paul LePage’s proposal to rewrite or roll back dozens of regulations and environmental laws. To some, the changes mean the undoing of a lifetime of efforts to protect the resources of Maine.

“I am struck by the fact that within one month of taking office, Gov. LePage was able to develop an extensive list of environmental regulations that are presumably impeding business development in Maine,” Mary Ann Larson of New Gloucester told the panel.

“We’re asked to believe that this list emerged from the ‘red tape’ tours,” Larson said. “And we’re asked to believe that if we just roll back the progress of the last 30 years that business will flock to Maine. Where is the science to support the belief that rolling back environmental laws will bring business to the state?

“Isn’t it just as possible,” Larson said, “that protecting the Maine brand will attract highly educated, creative people who will start software companies, or special food businesses or will build the next better mouse trap?”

The Maine brand was a consistent theme for the duration of the three-hour meeting at Central Maine Community College’s Jalbert Hall. By trying to make it easier for businesses to thrive here, several said, the governor might instead frighten off the very people Maine would like to attract.

Part of LePage’s proposal would repeal the Informed Growth Act, which requires the developer of any project larger than 75,000 square feet to pay tens of thousands of dollars for a comprehensive community impact study. Some fear the elimination of the act would result in a plague of big-box stores.

“The Informed Growth Act, passed in 2007, embodies fairness by providing the framework for communities to make prudent and informed decisions around permitting for large-scale retail projects,” said Daphne Loring of Greene, who read from a statement on behalf of the Maine Fair Trade Campaign.

“The IGA is a pro-business policy — it was supported by hundreds of Maine businesses who recognize the importance of a strong Maine economy and the value of independent, Maine-based businesses, really the backbone of the Maine economy,” Loring said. “At no time has it been more important for us to make responsible decisions for our economic future. The IGA provides a framework for information, transparency and responsible decision-making.”

Genevieve Lysen of the Maine People’s Alliance said her group vehemently opposes the governor’s proposed changes to the laws, saying LePage “doesn’t have a clear understanding of what brings people to Maine from elsewhere.

“It’s a brand that stands for rugged quality and beauty,” Lysen said. People looking for a place to locate their families and their businesses “won’t want to live in an environment that’s overrun with toxins and urban sprawl.”

Committee members have said they do not plan to simply rubber-stamp the governor’s proposed reforms — every one of them will be examined and vetted.

The best ideas, committee Chairman Jonathan Courtney said, “come from Main Street, not Augusta.”

It was Main Street doing most of the talking Thursday. Just about every seat was filled with innkeepers, gas station owners, Realtors and others who will be directly affected by changes to existing laws.

One of them, Craig Saddlemire, runs a video production company and would likely benefit if laws pertaining to electronic waste were eased. But Saddlemire believes those laws are already too lax. He pays a service to help him properly dispose of waste from his business.

“The fact that I can throw as much as I can into the Lewiston landfill,” he said, “seems absurd to me.”

Charles “Chip” Morrison, president of the Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce, presented the committee with a report similar to one the chamber has already forwarded to the governor. The report represents an analysis the chamber conducted after hearing from members who complained that the regulatory process in Maine is an impediment to economic growth.

“First of all,” it states in the chamber report, “not all regulation is bad. Businesses and developers in Maine profit from the state’s pristine environment, its abundant natural resources and its productive working landscapes. We do not want important natural assets lost to development or the economic base they provide destroyed. However, some of Maine’s regulations actually work against the very thing they seek to protect.”

The public forum Thursday was one of seven being held around the state. Some gatherings have turned into shouting matches. Thursday’s meeting at CMCC was orderly and calm. The way life should be, one member said.

Many of those in attendance hope it will remain that way.

“People who could live anywhere,” Larson said, “choose Maine because of the quality of life.”

Copyright (c) 2011, Sun Journal, Lewiston, Maine

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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