AUGUSTA, Maine — The Board of Environmental Protection has settled on a compromise that aims to reduce red tape for landowners who want to build near wetlands while maintaining protections for ducks, herons and other birds that depend on the habitat.
After lengthy discussion, the board on Thursday endorsed new rules that likely will allow property owners to receive building permits near “moderate value” habitat for inland waterfowl and wading birds in less time and with fewer out-of-pocket expenses.
By using the state’s “permit-by-rule” process, landowners could receive an expedited review by DEP staff alone, often receiving a permit within 14 days. The current full-review process is more lengthy and costly because it involves gathering feedback from other state agencies as well as potential scrutiny from abutters and outside groups.
Maine Department of Environmental Protection officials sought the changes — which are subject to legislative approval — after fielding complaints that the current rules were discouraging business growth and needlessly impeding landowners’ use of their property.
But some environmental and conservation organizations said the DEP’s proposal loosened the rules too much and could lead to development that harms fragile populations of ducks and other birds that nest, breed or feed near wetlands. As a result, the department presented the Board of Environmental Protection with several alternatives meant to address concerns raised by both outside groups and board members.
On Thursday, the board endorsed extending the no-build buffer in the proposed rules from 100 to 150 feet. Additionally, the compromise would require consultation with biologists from the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife on any projects built between April 15 and July 31 when breeding or nesting birds are especially sensitive to disturbance.
Nick Bennett, staff scientist with the Natural Resources Council of Maine, described the compromise as a “significant improvement.”
“We are pleased that the board really listened to the science supporting larger buffers,” Bennett said. “I think [the DEP] brought forward those options because of the good testimony showing that larger buffers are better.”
DEP Commissioner Patricia Aho said Friday that she also was satisfied with the result, saying the board “undertook a very thoughtful and deliberative process” to come up with something that will address landowners’ concerns without harming wildlife.
“It clearly gives more options to landowners than there were before,” Aho said. Aho predicted that the new rules would be used largely by landowners looking to build single-family homes.
Environmental groups had raised concerns that commercial developers or landowners looking to build subdivisions near wetlands could avoid public scrutiny by using the permit-by-rule process. The board did not directly address those concerns but Bennett said the larger buffer zone should help to minimize impacts.
The board also voted to allow the DEP to request a lighting plan in cases where exterior lighting could affect nearby wading birds or waterfowl.
The rules now will go to the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee for review.