A LePage-backed bid to reduce buffer zones for development is overwhelmingly rejected.
by Tom Bell, MaineToday Media State House Writer
AUGUSTA – By a wide margin, the Maine Senate on Wednesday rejected an attempt by Gov. Paul LePage to roll back regulations aimed at protecting the state’s largest vernal pools.
The Senate voted 29-6 against an amended bill that would shrink the protection zone from 250 feet around vernal pools to 150 feet.
It then unanimously passed the original bill, L.D. 159, which would retain the 250-foot zone while reforming the way state agencies implement the rules.
Last month, the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee unanimously endorsed L.D. 159, which was seen as a compromise between environmental groups and landowners and developers in rural areas.
The bill would prohibit the Department of Environmental Protection from requiring setbacks from vernal pools greater than 250 feet — something that has happened on occasion when developers have sought state permits for large subdivisions.
LePage, who has said the vernal pool protections hinder economic development, was unhappy with the compromise.
The administration pushed for an amendment to shrink the protection zone to 150 feet. Sen. Ronald Collins, R-Wells, submitted the measure on Friday.
Speaking on the Senate floor Wednesday, Collins said the 250-foot buffer is a hardship for many people who own large, undeveloped parcels. “You have to respect property rights and property values,” he said.
Rep. Thomas Saviello, R-Wilton, co-chairman of the Environment and Natural Resources Committee, defended the committee’s original bill and the 250-foot protection zone.
He said the law affects only “significant” vernal pools, and only 222 such pools have been identified in Maine.
Vernal pools are bodies of water that dry up for part of the year. They are breeding habitat for salamanders, wood frogs and fairy shrimp, which are important food sources for small carnivores and large game species.
Saviello noted that the protection zone does not prohibit development but requires developers to consult with the DEP and get permits.
Since the law took effect in 2007, there have been 16 applications to build in vernal pool areas and all have been approved, said Sen. Seth Goodall, D-Richmond, who serves on the Environment and Natural Resources Committee.
Goodall urged the Senate to remove Collins’s amendment and support the committee’s original bill, which he said strikes a balance between the interests of property owners, wildlife protection and the economy.
Nick Bennett, a staff scientist with the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said he was pleased by the wide margin of the Senate vote. “The science that supports the 250-foot zone is strong and that is reflected in the vote,” he said.
The Senate votes strips Collins’s amendment from the bill. When the House takes up L.D. 159 later this week, any amendment would have to come from the floor.
After the House votes on the bill, the Senate will take it up again for a final vote.