AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine House Friday, by a 50-92 vote, rejected a bill that would have pushed towns to take a close look at abandoned roads and rights-of-way.
Battling with landowners over rights and responsibilities regarding abandoned roads or public rights-of-way has become a regular problem for towns across Maine for decades.
That’s why, said Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, he offered a bill that would clarify state law on the issue, which is disjointed and parts of which date back to the late 1940s.
Saviello’s bill would have required towns that abandon or discontinue a road to also take a vote within two years to maintain the town’s right to the property via an easement. Otherwise, under the bill, the right-of-way would recede back to the property owner.
Saviello also said the bill would ensure towns had a full inventory of all the roads they were responsible for and which abandoned ones they were no longer responsible for.
He said the issue arose from a Fayette constituent’s dispute over a road the landowner maintains but is regularly used and in some cases abused by other townspeople.
Uncertainty over the road and who owns it has tied up a public lands deal that would have allowed the state to purchase the landowner’s lakefront property, Saviello said.
The bill is the result of a 2013 legislative resolve that had directed the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry to review the problem and come up with possible solutions.
An amendment to the bill by state Sen. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley, would have allowed towns to do the work at their own pace, Saviello said.
“I do believe towns have a responsibility to know where these roads are,” Saviello said. “It’s part of their community.” Saviello, who is a selectman in the town of Wilton, said his town was in the process of figuring that out.
“We don’t have to do anything to the right-of-way, but we at least need to know where they are,” Saviello said. He said having a complete inventory is also in the town’s best interest for possible future use or other unforeseen needs that may arise.
Some speaking in favor of the bill said it was about protecting landowner and taxpayer rights and not just about backing up town governments.
“If we say to a town, ‘Hey, do some more work than you are already doing,’ of course they are going to say, ‘Oh no, don’t do that,’” Rep. Justin Chentte, D-Saco said. “But we collectively represent the constituents in our district and for the individuals on these abandoned roads this provides an appropriate outlet.”
But lawmakers voting against LD 1177 said it constitutes an unfunded mandate on towns to do something they aren’t required to do under current law.
Rep. Joe Brooks, an independent from Winterport, said none of the five towns in his eastern Waldo County district were interested in passing the bill. Brooks said that as it was, landowners on abandoned roads already were pressuring selectmen.
“They are asking the selectmen and in one case a council to do things they’ve never had to do and I’m not sure they want to do and they may not even be trained to do,” Brooks said. “It’s a mandate. Here we go, why are we doing this?” Brooks asked. “Because a couple of communities had problems? What about all the rest of the 460 who didn’t?”
Even Saviello agreed the bill, even with the Thomas amendment, may still have been an unfunded mandate on towns, which would have required two-thirds support.
The bill passed the Senate, 21-14, on Thursday but Friday’s rejection by the House will likely seal the bill’s fate for this lawmaking session, which is set to end on April 17.