March 29, 2020
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LePage seeks to slice buffer zone around vernal pools

John Clarke Russ | BDN
John Clarke Russ | BDN
A green frog surfaces in a vernal pool in Orono.

AUGUSTA — The LePage administration is continuing its push to reduce the state’s buffer zone for vernal pools, despite warnings that the temporary wetlands could suffer irreparable harm.

The Maine House of Representatives on Friday unanimously killed a bill that would slice the current 250-foot buffer to 75 feet. But at the behest of Gov. Paul LePage, a 150-foot buffer is expected to be introduced next week when the Senate takes up another bill, LD 159.

The original LD 159 retained the 250-foot zone while attempting to address implementation issues that have frustrated builders and developers. The bill emerged from committee with a unanimous recommendation and was hailed by environmentalists, Republicans and Democrats as responsible regulatory reform.

However, the forthcoming amendment, released Friday, is expected to revive the vernal pool debate lawmakers seemingly settled in committee.

LD 159’s lead sponsor, Sen. Thomas Saviello, R-Wilton, said he plans to oppose the reduced buffer.

“Give me the science; show me,” he said. “So far, I haven’t seen it.”

Environmental groups say the LePage administration is ignoring science that shows reducing the buffer would do irrecoverable harm to vernal pools — necessary for the life cycles of certain species, including wood frogs.

Nick Bennett, a scientist with the Natural Resources Council of Maine, provided documents showing draft testimony from a scientist at the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife on the bill that would have cut the buffer to 75 feet.

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.” He added that through 2010, the DEP hadn’t denied a single building permit within the buffer area.

The testimony also attempted to correct the misconception that the 250-foot buffer was a no-build zone. In fact, the area is known as a “consultation zone” in which developers are allowed to apply for building permits.

Since 2006, the DEP has approved all 16 full-permit applications to build in the zone. Of the 62 permit-by-rule applications, a less restrictive application, 58 have been approved.

The DIF&W scientist’s testimony, obtained through a Freedom of Access Act request, was never released. Instead, several members of the administration testified in support of the 75-foot buffer, including DIF&W Commissioner Chandler Woodcock.

Bennett of the Natural Resources Council of Maine said the testimony “had been overruled” because it contradicted LePage’s policy position.

“Despite the governor’s pledge to accept good science, he ignored the scientific recommendations of his best scientists,” Bennett said.

Even without the DIF&W testimony, 11 of 13 committee members rejected the administration’s attempt to reduce the buffer to 75 feet.

Saviello said Friday that he agreed to allow the amendment to his bill so the Legislature could decide the merits of the governor’s proposal. Saviello rejected claims that he was being strong-armed by LePage with the threat of vetoing the lawmaker’s entire reform bill.

“Some have suggested that I’m being muzzled,” Saviello said. “I’m not being muzzled.”

Adrienne Bennett, a spokeswoman for LePage, would not say whether the governor had threatened to veto the bill if the 150-foot buffer amendment wasn’t included.

“There are still moving parts to this bill and the governor has not committed one way or another,” she said.

Nick Bennett said LePage’s decision to discount the dangers of reducing the buffer would come at the expense of an invaluable segment of the forest food chain.

“Vernal pools are incredibly important for the forest ecosystem,” Bennett said. “They feed all kinds of animals, including water fowl, that people like to hunt for. Bears feed at vernal pools. Deer feed at vernal pools.”

He added, “It’s not just about froggies. It’s about all the other species. And all of the science supports at least a 250-foot zone.”

More federal regulation?

The governor’s proposal also yielded a response from the Army Corps of Engineers, the agency that oversees federal permitting for vernal pools and wetlands. A representative from the agency has suggested that the 150-foot buffer could disrupt current “streamlining” between the Corps and the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. That could mean an increase in oversight by federal agencies.

That assessment was sent to Saviello and Rep. James Hamper, R-Oxford, in a June 2 email from Jay Clement, a regional representative for the Army Corps of Engineers. Saviello and Hamper are co-chairmen of the Legislature’s Environmental and Natural Resources Committee.

“We’ve consistently tried to educate lawmakers that actions taken on this issue may have some degree of unintended backlash and effect on the regulated public,” Clement wrote. “It remains our belief that the public would rather deal with the DEP than deal with the Corps.”

Clement could not be reached for comment.

Despite his warnings, it appears the amendment is moving forward.

Samantha DePoy-Warren, a spokeswoman for the DEP, said Clement’s assessment was speculative.

“We have seen no concrete evidence that [increased regulation] would be the case, and neither our department nor the regulated community would be as supportive of this buffer reduction if we had,” she said.

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