POLL

Bill requiring written permission to use private property stirs sparks

Posted March 21, 2011, at 7 p.m.
Last modified March 22, 2011, at 9:37 a.m.
ATV riders travel on a private trail in Hermon in 2002. A new bill would require recreational users to gain the owner's written permission before using private land.
ATV riders travel on a private trail in Hermon in 2002. A new bill would require recreational users to gain the owner's written permission before using private land.

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AUGUSTA, Maine – Spurred by hunters and recreational vehicles damaging their land, several landowners and farmers asked lawmakers to approve a measure requiring those using their land to get written permission. It was a proposal that drew sharp opposition.

Gordon Mott from Lakeville, a small town in eastern Penobscot County, said having hunters on farmland creates a lot of problems for the farmer with livestock wandering in different areas of the farm. He said having written permission would provide the landowner the opportunity to inform the hunter where to hunt and what areas are off limits.

“This is the kind of management that is, as I see it, that is necessary,” he said. “It could very well reduce the posting against any kind of use that we are seeing that is growing exponentially.”

Paul Bernanke, a farmer from Belmont in Waldo County, said he has had problems with hunters using dogs on his property. He said his complaints to law enforcement about the damage to his farm have gone unaddressed except for the local town dog warden.

“He brings along four truckloads of armed hunters,” Bernanke said. “I got four truckloads of yahoos coming down my driveway, with guns, claiming how they got the right to be on my land and come after their dogs and all the rest of it.”

Others testified about damaged crops from all-terrain vehicles as well as littering along snowmobile trails that cross their land, and there were also complaints about damage to private roads from vehicles using them in mud season.

Jeff Belmont of Warren opposed the bill.

Belmont, who said he was both a farmer and a professional guide, warned that Maine is in danger of losing its traditional access to private land for hunting and other recreational purposes because of the actions of the few that cause damage.

“It is not the 99 percent of the sportsmen that are causing the problem, it is the 1 percent,” he said. “I have had the same problems you have heard here today. You want to talk about doing damage, when you see three, four ATVs doing power turns in your strawberry field the day before you are going to harvest.”

Belmont said there needs to be greater enforcement of the law and that means more wardens. He said many would flatly reject the signing of any permission slip, worried that would open them to liability issues, regardless of what the law states. So, he said, the bill is not the answer.

Deanna Winslow, who owns a farm in Aroostook County, agreed the minority of recreational users are the problem. She said a maximum fine of $500 simply will not act as a deterrent.

“I doubt that such a small fine as what’s proposed in this bill will actually deter anyone from this sort of activity,” she said. “I would urge you consider putting some teeth into this bill and increasing the fine such as it will become a real deterrent.”

Panel members discussed raising fines and asked Col. Joel Wilkinson, chief of the Maine Warden Service, about the issue. He said the agency would support a reasonable increase in fines, without defining “reasonable.” He said the most effective deterrents are using license suspensions for inappropriate behavior.

“I think accountability would come in the form of increased penalties or license suspensions — privileges that people currently have that could potentially be taken away,” he said.

Wilkinson acknowledged that the warden service is hard-pressed to enforce all of the laws they are charged with enforcing. He said that on any day there are only 38 to 44 wardens in the field. He promised the committee an estimate at a work session on what it would take to bolster the warden service to enforce the law.

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