by Susan Sharon
MPBN radio news story
For weeks, business owners and leaders have been sounding off about Maine’s onerous regulatory climate. And Gov. Paul LePage has been lending his ear and offering his own thoughts about environmental regulations and the need for reform. Today it was the environmental community’s turn to meet with the governor. The case for protecting Maine’s air, water and forests was made not by environmental groups, but by those who live and work here in a variety of occupations.
Fifteen years ago Corky Ellis, his wife and two young kids were living in New Jersey. They spent their summers driving to Maine and New Brunswick. But one year Ellis says he turned to his wife and asked, “Wouldn’t you like to live in Maine?”
“New Jersey had become so developed with endless malls, billboards, parking lots, dirty air and a real loss of its natural beauty,” Ellis said. “She said, sure, let’s try it. So we piled into a van and we moved to Cumberland.”
They started a software company, but for the first five years, Ellis says, it was a disaster. They lost almost all their savings and invested everything they had into the business. Now they have a flourishing enterprise known as Kepware Technologies in Portland’s Old Port that employs 50 people.
Ellis says they could have moved to North Carolina or Texas with lower taxes and minimal environmental regulations, but they wanted to live in Maine. “Please bear in mind that many businesses like ours are here in Maine precisely because of the protected beauty and the conservation efforts of the past.”
Ellis was one of more than two dozen people selected to give a personal message to Gov. Paul LePage at the Augusta Civic Center. Titled “People and the Environment,” the roundtable included a diverse panel but all who share a common view: that Maine is special because of its quality of place.
Ernie Hilton is a lifelong Republican, an attorney and civil engineer from Madison who previously chaired Maine’s Board of Environmental Protection, and whose wife chairs the Land Use Regulation Commission, or LURC.
Hilton says he’s worried Maine’s quality of place may be threatened as the new administration and Legislature look to relax environmental permitting and reuglations and do away with agencies such as LURC, which governs zoning and planning in Maine’s North Woods.
“I’m concerned when I see, as I did yesterday, a list of some of the statutes which are pending before the Legislature dealing with shoreland zoning and with LURC, and it strikes me as being a race to the bottom approach to our environment,” Hilton said.
Hilton says it’s not environmental rules or regulations that are the biggest impediments to job creation in Maine but rather the high cost of health care. He points out that over the last eight years more than 10,000 permits by rule were issued for small projects, and $5 billion dollars worth of major projects permitted by the Department of Environmental Protection alone.
William Bennett, president and CEO of Oakhurst Dairy, says Maine’s pristine image is an integral part of the Oakhurst brand and business. And Bennett says he sees investing in a clean environment as a corporate/ social responsibility.
“We’ve converted our commercial delivery fleet to biodiesel fuel, we’ve put the U.S. dairy industry’s first hybrid delivery truck on the road and we’ve invested in large solar installations to generate our electricity and heat our water,” Bennett said.
Bennett says “if it’s good for the environment, it’s good for business.” And that’s something Horace Hildreth, a former Repubican state senator and congressional candidate agrees with. Hildreth is chairman of Diversified Communications, which employs more than 200 people in Maine.
But as a member of the Legislature, he drafted and sponsored some of the state’s most significant environmental laws at a time when pollution caused massive fish kills in Maine rivers, lakes and ponds faced uncontrolled development in the unorganized territories and industrial projects were proposed, Hildreth says, without the slightest consideration of their impact on their surroundings.
“Laws like the site law of the Land Use Regulation Commission, the Shoreland Zoning Law and the Natural Resource Protection Act were passed in order to strike a balance between private interests and the public interest, to guide development and to protect wildlife habitat,” Hildreth said.
And wildlife habitat, according to former Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Commissioner Bucky Owen, is worth $1.8 billion dollars to the Maine economy. Gov. LePage said he agrees with some of the things he heard at the forum and disagrees with others.
Lepage says he will defend the environment as long as certain considerations are met. “Good science. Good technology. Common sense and a partnering attitude is what we in Maine need to do to move the state forward,” he said.
After the roundtable, several environmentalists said they were encouraged by the governor’s remarks and hopeful that they can educate him about how good science is already reflected in many of Maine’s environmental regulations that are now under fire.