AUGUSTA, Maine — With strong backing from the Republican majority, the Senate on Wednesday rejected a late attempt by the LePage administration to reduce the state’s buffer zone for vernal pools, temporary wetlands known for helping sustain larger animals such as deer and bears in the spring.
The Senate voted 29-6 against a floor amendment that would have reduced the current 250-foot buffer to 150 feet.
The decision led to unanimous approval of LD 159, a bill reported out of committee with a unanimous endorsement. It attempts to address implementation issues that have frustrated builders and developers, and, according to both sides of the debate, confused local enforcement agencies.
The floor amendment was introduced by Sen. Ronald Collins, R-York, at the urging of the LePage administration.
The restrictions around the wetlands were highlighted by developers as a significant problem during lawmakers’ regulatory reform tour this year.
However, lawmakers working on the bill in committee were persuaded by stakeholder testimony that the issue wasn’t the 250-foot buffer; it was regulators’ interpretation and implementation of it.
That argument was made by the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Thomas Saviello, R-Wilton, during Wednesday’s floor debate.
Saviello told lawmakers that the 250-foot buffer wasn’t a no-build zone but a consultation zone.
Saviello noted that the Army Corps of Engineers had warned lawmakers and the administration that reducing the buffer to 150 feet would result in additional federal scrutiny and regulation.
The Army Corps of Engineers regulates wetlands permitting.
A representative from the agency recently indicated that reducing the zone could disrupt current “streamlining” between the Corps and the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.
The DEP and the LePage administration have called the Corps’ assessment “speculative.”
Collins, one of six Republicans to support reducing the buffer, said Maine’s zone was too restrictive. Collins originally introduced legislation to cut the buffer to 75 feet.
Others rejected Saviello’s assessment that the buffer wasn’t a no-build zone. Sen. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley, called existing vernal pools law “a taking” of property.
There are 222 recorded vernal pools in the state that trigger the 250-foot buffer.
Since 2006, the DEP has approved all 16 full-permit applications to build in vernal pool zones. Of the 62 permit-by-rule applications, a less restrictive application, 58 have been approved.
Members of the building and contracting lobby have said Maine’s buffer acts as a deterrent for development because some builders don’t want to deal with the additional permitting required to build in the consultation zone.
It remains to be seen whether LePage will veto the bill if it’s approved by the House without the 150-foot setback amendment.
Environmental groups have accused the governor of ignoring science that shows reducing the buffer would do irrecoverable harm to vernal pools, which are necessary for the life cycles of certain species, including wood frogs.
The administration chose not to release testimony from a scientist at the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife warning that cutting the buffer would destroy the temporary wetlands.
The scientist noted that the existing 250-foot buffer was based on 14 scientific studies and described it as “a conservative but critical management tool.”
The DIF&W scientist’s testimony, obtained via a Freedom of Access Act request, was never released. Instead, several members of the administration testified in committee in support of the 75-foot buffer.
The original version of LD 159 without the amendment will now head to the House of Representatives.
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