by Susan Sharon
MPBN Radio news story
One of the more contentious debates behind the scenes this legislative session has been over a 250-foot buffer zone for vernal pools. These are temporary but important bodies of water that provide breeding habitat for amphibians in the spring. They’re also a veritable food basket for larger wildlife. But property owners, some developers and the LePage admnistration want to relax the rules that they say impede progress. And there is pressure mounting to change the law.
Since 2006, Maine has had the 250-foot vernal pool protection zone in place to give critters that breed and feed other critters a chance to roam. But Nick Bennett, a staff scientist with the Natural Resources Council of Maine says there’s a lot of misunderstanding about the importance of vernal pools to the ecosystem.
Without breeding habitat for amphibians such as frogs and salamanders, other larger creatures such as deer and bear would be left out of nature’s equivalent of the lunchroom buffet line. He says it would be a mistake to alter the rules.
“I think there’s a lot of misinformation out there that the 250-foot zone is a no-build zone,” Bennett says. “It is not a no-build zone. It’s a consultation zone. It means that you need to work with the experts at IF&W to figure out how to do your development while minimizing harm to these important resources.”
Bennett says in the last five years there have only been 16 applications for permits to build in vernal pool areas and not one has been denied. According to draft testimony prepared by staff at the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, numerous scientific studies from around the Northeast have confirmed the importance of maintaining intact forested habitat surrounding productive vernal pools. Specifically, the testimony mentions 250-feet as a “conservative but critical management tool.”
But the department’s draft testimony opposing a bill to relax the buffer zone to 75 feet was never made public. That’s because the Lepage administration, including the commissioners of IF&W, Conservation and the Department of Environmental Protection, testified in favor of the change.
Bennett says he only became aware of the staff’s opposition to the bill after his organiztion filed a Freedom of Access request with the department. “The Department has always supported the 250 (foot buffer). In February 2011–IF&W has a publication that’s called the IFW Insider–and they did an IF&W Insider totally devoted to vernal pools. And it spends a long time explaining in that publication why the 250 is so important. And then IF&W’s commissioner said we support reducing it to 75 feet.”
In April, the Environment and Natural Resources Committee held a well-attended public hearing on the vernal pools legislation. The bill to reduce the buffer to 75 feet was ultimately rejected. But there is still strong interest in doing something to change the law.
This week Deputy DEP Commissioner Patty Aho sent a memo to the members of the Maine Senate about reducing the buffer from 250 feet to 150. In a telephone interview with MPBN, she says the issue boils down to the math involved for property owners.
“Because if you look at the amount of acreage that is required when you have a 250-foot buffer distance, that’s pretty close to five acres of land that’s affected, and so if you’re able to reduce it down to 150-foot buffer zone it results in less than two acres that’s affected by a landowner.” Aho says making the change will not mean any less protection for vernal pools.
One of the big questions has been how making the change will affect related permitting and regulation from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. During the hearing, the Corp’s senior project manager in Maine said he believes the status quo offers the greatest efficiency and customer service to the public. And in a meeting with Gov. LePage, Aho and other administrators this week, Jay Clement says he told them the same thing.
“There is a great deal of efficiency, probably the maximum efficiency, currently offered in the way that the program is structured now,” he says. “It remains to be seen how that efficiency is altered by proposed changes. We’ll have to wait and see.”
Clement says, ultimately, the buffer distance is a state decision and he says the Corps won’t stop issuing general permits if the state makes a change. Clement says changing the status quo will have the likely effect of increasing the number of applications that are reviewed by federal agencies.
Republican Senator Tom Saviello, chairman of the Environment and Natural Resources Committee, says he supports the 250-foot buffer zone. But Saviello says there will be a move on the Senate floor to allow discussion of the 150-foot modification.
“If some members of my caucus would like to have that vote and ask that question then they should have the freedom to do that, so that’s what will happen,” Saviello says.
The debate on vernal pools is expected to come up sometime next week.