Business leaders note import of environment

Posted Feb. 09, 2011, at 8:38 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Business owners and leaders of the Chamber of Commerce said Wednesday that they believe Maine can simultaneously protect the environment and change regulations that they argue are harming the state’s business climate.

Speaking during a press conference at the State House, Maine State Chamber of Commerce President Dana Connors said business owners realize that preserving Maine’s natural resources is key to the “quality of place” that makes the state unique.

Connors said the recent debate over Gov. Paul LePage’s lengthy list of reform proposals for the Department of Environmental Protection — and particularly the use of the word “rollback” in that debate — has given the false impression that there are only two choices: environmental stewardship or business growth.

“It’s about protection but it is also about growth,” Connors said.

Although the public debate has been swirling for several weeks, the political work to reform Maine’s regulatory environment is really just beginning.

Lawmakers on the Committee on Regulatory Fairness and Reform are scheduled to hold a public hearing on the issue Monday in Augusta. LePage’s proposals — the first of several “phases” of reform recommendations his office is expected to unveil — likely will be a hot topic.

LePage’s office has said that most of the suggestions have come from “red tape audit” meetings that regional chambers of commerce have held around the state. To date, regional chamber groups have held 22 such meetings.

During Wednesday’s event, several business owners offered their own suggested changes.

Mark Hall, vice president of development at the Sunday River and Sugarloaf resorts, said his company would like to see regulations that distinguish between major and minor projects. Hall said it recently took six months to get approval for a ski patrol building the size of a one-car garage.

Peter Daigle with Lafayette Hotels, which operates 21 hotels in Maine, said his company spent hundreds of thousands of dollars seeking DEP permits to add a third story onto a hotel in Wells. But, Daigle said, the permit was denied because of concerns about impacts on sand dunes, even though Daigle said the addition would not encroach upon additional dunes.

But several of the speakers talked about the importance of collaboration, both among regulators and the regulated community as well as among businesses and the environmental community as the reform proposals are vetted by the Legislature.

Bruce Wagner, the former CEO of Barber Foods, said the Portland company recently partnered with the U.S. Department of Agriculture on a pilot project that could become a national model for food safety in the poultry industry. But that collaboration only happened after the USDA backed off an earlier proposed mandate.

“I don’t think there is any reason to vilify businesspeople or regulators,” Wagner said.

Bill Cohen, spokesman for Verso Paper, said he would like to see the state address what he called an “inconsistent and unpredictable regulatory environment.” But Cohen added that his company has worked successfully with environmental groups on contentious issues in the past.

“It is time to do that again,” Cohen said.

Attendees at Wednesday’s press conference were hoping to help set a more positive tone in the upcoming debate. And it seems to have worked.

Rep. Mike Carey, a Lewiston Democrat who serves on the regulatory reform committee, said he was pleased to hear Connors say business groups were not interested in “extreme” changes that could harm the environment.

Pete Didisheim, advocacy director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, was likewise pleased with the tone of the comments. Didisheim charged the LePage administration with adopting a “confrontational and combative tone” that suggested the DEP and environmental regulations were to blame for the state’s economic troubles.

“I think that is not fair and is out of sync with the views of most Maine businesses and people,” he said.

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