Senate Republicans seek a compromise on a bill allowing landowners to sue if new regulations lower the value of their property.
By Susan M. Cover, State House Bureau
AUGUSTA – A Republican lawmaker from Hampden hopes the Legislature’s current recess will breathe new life into a bill to allow landowners who are adversely affected by state regulations to get compensation for their lost property value.
The bill, which passed 74-72 in the House, stalled in the Senate in the hours before the recess began last week. It’s controversial and highly charged, with supporters saying landowners need recourse when the state oversteps its bounds and opponents saying it’s extreme and unnecessary.
Assistant House Majority Leader Andre Cushing said Republicans in the Senate may craft a compromise to L.D. 1810 that would win more support in the House and pass in the Senate when lawmakers return May 15.
He wants legislation to require future lawmakers to consider the consequences of their actions and give relief to landowners if they are harmed by new environmental or land-use laws.
“It’s so well-intended legislators in the future have to reflect on the magnitude of what their bills would do,” he said.
The bill that the House approved would allow landowners to sue the state if 50 percent or more of the value of their property were lost because of state regulations. Landowners would have to go to mediation first. If that failed, they could win as much as $400,000 in court or be granted waivers from the regulations.
Cushing cited bird habitat regulations, adopted a few years ago, that prevented people from building on their properties. Lawmakers discovered that the guidelines were unclear and were being implemented in a way that was more severe than intended.
In such cases, there is another way to remedy the situation, said Pete Didisheim, a lobbyist for the Natural Resources Council of Maine. He supports an alternative that calls for the formation of a legislative committee to hear complaints about new state regulations from landowners, farmers and others.
The committee could pass along ideas to others with more expertise, who would have the power to recommend changes to laws to address the situation. That way, the problem would be solved for all landowners who get into the same situation, not just the one who sues the state, Didisheim said.
That’s the concept in the majority report on the bill from the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee.
The approach supported by Cushing, which won support from a minority of the Judiciary Committee, is projected to cost more than $1 million over the first few years, not including any possible settlements paid to landowners.
Clark Granger of Woolwich, who owns 800 acres of farm and forest, said environmental regulations restrict the ways farmers use their land. If they want to sell it, he said, the regulations reduce the value of the land for future development.
He said about 40 percent of his trees can’t be cut because they are along the ocean or a river. He hopes that lawmakers will give him and others a right to be compensated for lost productivity of their land.
If nothing happens, he said, farmers will likely begin to restrict public access to their properties, a long-cherished Maine tradition.
The bill passed in the House only after Rep. Gary Knight, R-Livermore Falls, changed his vote after a conference with Cushing and others. Knight said he doesn’t support Cushing’s version of the bill, but was asked by GOP senators to switch his vote so they could make changes to the bill.
Knight said he’s among a small, bipartisan group of lawmakers who plan to meet next week to talk about the changes.
“The pressure isn’t what made me change” his vote, he said. “I changed because there were others from the Senate who said, ‘Can you give it to us in this posture and see if we can work out the issues?'”
The Maine Farm Bureau and others hope that Cushing’s version of the bill will pass, citing a small number of instances when farmers have been hurt.
For example, Farm Bureau Director Jon Olson said a farmer in Unity was prevented from farming some of his land because of new rules regarding habitat for inland wading birds.
Lisa Hunt of Newcastle, a citizen lobbyist who owns a small farm, said the state should be required to pay something to landowners who are hurt by regulations.
“A lot of rural folks have been hurt in Maine by this process,” she said. “I don’t think it’s fair the state of Maine can regulate away 99 percent of the value of your land without paying you a dime.”