A Maine lawmaker wants to increase the cost of state application fees by 125 percent for large aquaculture projects, a move that opponents fear would stifle the growing industry.
During a hearing Tuesday with a state legislative committee, proponents said that the proposal by Rep. Jay McCreight, D-Harpswell, would ensure that state regulators’ resources aren’t monopolized by massive projects to the detriment of other applicants waiting in the queue.
The larger the proposal, the more complex the application and the more time it takes state employees to evaluate. But representatives from the aquaculture industry oppose the proposal, saying that the guidelines are too vague and could stifle the nascent industry.
The state Department of Marine Resources charges application fees between $100 and $2,000, depending on acreage, type of aquaculture and complexity. Under the bill, applications expected to take significantly more department staff time could be charged up to $250,000. The designation for the separate fees would have to be made when DMR deems the application complete — not after the full evaluation is underway. Other departments involved in the process could have their hours also considered for fees. Fees charged to applicants would need to be the actual costs of processing.
“The authority is intended for use in relatively rare occasions where the department is dealing with an application that is well beyond the bounds of a typical application,” Deirdre Gilbert, DMR’s director of marine policy, told the legislative committee.
The bill’s language mirrors Department of Environmental Protection regulations aimed at handling large projects such as the Central Maine Power corridor, according to Gilbert.
Sebastian Belle, executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association, said he understood the intentions of the bill but feared that the proposal could be wielded against the industry further down the road.
“While I trust the current commissioner to be thoughtful and fair in his consideration of these trigger factors, the proposed language gives future commissioners enormous latitude to use special fees to discourage applications and deter investment,” he said.
It would also give aquaculture opponents incentive to pressure the state into levying increased fees on projects, which could result in only larger companies that could carry large upfront costs to apply, Belle argued.
There are four large aquaculture farms in the works for Maine at the moment, though none have moved ahead into construction.
Lori Howell, the owner of Spinney Creek Shellfish in Eliot, worried that the bill would have a chilling effect on applications and add costs to farmers, who often already pay for surveyors, lawyers and other experts while preparing their applications.
“It will cause applicants to select a site, not for its biological, technical, or logistical merits, but for the fact that a site may be ‘easy’ and unlikely to cause additional fees to be assessed,” she wrote to the committee.
However, extensive public controversy alone could not be used to add more fees to an application, according to Gilbert. She called the aquaculture association’s reluctant opposition “unfortunate” because, despite staff increases, it’s been a challenge to keep up with increasing applications and large projects only exacerbate the current backlog.
“The department could use these funds to manage this workload to ensure that other proposals can also continue to move forward,” Gilbert said.