Maine Hearing Focuses on Waterfowl Habitat
And they’re off! A flock of environmental issues are now in the air, flying toward Augusta where they will add flavor to a legislative session certain to be dominated by difficult budget issues.
Last week a task force offered up its recommendations on the Land Use Regulation Commission, falling short of what many expected to be a recommendation to abolish LURC. The proposal is thoughtful, a compromise of sorts, but still controversial and headed for a fight.
Other controversial environmental issues, including a proposal to compensate landowners when new environmental rules are adopted that reduce the value of their property by more than 50 percent, and a roll-back of the protective rules for waterfowl wading and nesting habitat, are also moving forward.
And later this month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hosts three informational meetings on a permit application from Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife that would protect trappers who accidentally trap a Canadian lynx, now on the fed’s Endangered Species List.
We’ll continue to report on all of these important issues here, but today, let’s talk ducks.
On December 1, the Board of Environmental Protection sponsored a public hearing on a proposal to relax the process by which the Department of Environmental Protection reviews development in areas where wading birds and waterfowl may be nesting. As expected, the proposal was criticized by environmental groups and praised by developers and landowners.
What was new and different was the strong advocacy for the rule change from the leaders of the Department of Environmental Protection. The day after the hearing, the DEP issued a press release highlighting comments at the BEP hearing by Mike Mullen, director of the department’s Bureau of Land and Water Quality, where he has worked for 27 years.
The release stated that the proposal “will streamline and lower the price of a permitting process for many landowners while retaining important protections for Maine’s birds.”
The DEP proposal would allow development in “moderate value” waterfowl habitat through a permit-by-rule process, reduce the protection of that habitat to 100 feet, and allow up to 20 percent of the parcel of land to be developed. “What we’re proposing is balanced, workable regulations that protect wetlands and wildlife without overly limiting landowners,” said Mullen.
Maine Audubon’s Susan Gallo countered Mullen, noting that the current rules are working fine, and no applications for development have been denied since the waterfowl habitat protections were enacted in 2006. On the other hand, Gallo admitted that the current rule isn’t perfect and the process is “tedious, time-consuming, and costly, unfairly burdening small landowners who lacked the expertise to successfully navigate the many, complex steps in the process.”
She objected to the lack of restrictions in types of development allowed by the proposed permit-by-rule process, and suggested that the streamlined process be limited to single-family homes and that constructon be timed to avoid the nesting season from April 15 to July 31.
Nick Bennett of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, another opponent of the proposal, made a good point. The permit-by-rule process eliminates the traditional collaboration between the state’s wildlife biologists and the developer to minimize the project’s impact on waterfowl habitat. This process is the principal reason all of the permits were granted.
Representative Bob Duchesne presented, as is typical of the four-term member of the legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee, very thoughtful testimony that focused on the bigger picture.
Duchesne offered a series of maps, created by Evan Richart, former State Planning Office Director and a long-time land use and municipal planner, noting that the maps “are more important than anything I have to say.” Indeed. Richart’s maps display a shocking spread of development – labeled suburbia – into Maine’s rural areas, a decade-by-decade march that most of us have witnessed first hand.
Duchesne then offered an excellent – and brief – explanation of the issue. “Most of DEP land use regulation is based on the Avoid-Minimize-Mitigate hierarchy,” said Duchesne. “Everyone gets a permit, providing they avoid or minimize the amount of environmental degradation done by the project. It’s Maine’s way of saying, ‘sure, go ahead; just be careful.’
“This proposed (permit-by-rule) is an exemption from the need to avoid or minimize harm. It’s an arbitrary estimation that says, ‘if your project isn’t any bigger or more intrusive than this, then we’ll just assume the impact is acceptable.’ Most times, it will be. Sometimes it won’t.
“But, on balance, we’ll accept the risk of occasionally unreasonable impacts in return for simplicity, speed, and predictability for the landowner. “The core question for you to decide,” testified Duchesne, “is: when is a project large or intrusive enough to require the standards level of appropriate review?”
He reserved his own judgment and opinion on that, until this rule goes back to his legislative committee for final approval. He did advise the BEP “you need to figure out a threshold where this gets capped. Twenty percent of a hundred acre parcel has a whole lot more impact than 20 percent of 2 acres.”
And while I risk offering you’re a column that is too long, I hope you will appreciate the final five paragraphs of Bob Duchesne’s testimony. Here they are.
“What I really want to focus on is the urgency. The Natural Resources Protection Act has been around for over 22 years. We’ve known for long time that some of Maine’s most important economic and aesthetic assets were getting chewed up by sprawl. Since 1980, Maine’s population has increased 18 percent. That’s only half the rate of the US population growth. It’s not about how much we’re growing – it’s about how much we’re spreading out. The reason there is now a collision between public values and private property is that we’re consuming rural areas at a prodigious rate.
“First, it was the change in families. Between 1960 and 1990, the number of divorced and separated people in Maine increased five-fold. We now need a lot more dwellings to house the same number of people as when we were all kids. In the year 2000, we needed 400 homes and apartments to house the same number of people that only required 300 units in 1960.
“Second, Maine leads the nation for the percentage of vacation homes. We beat out sunbelt states like Florida and Arizona. In Maine, 15.6 percent of all housing units are for seasonal use. We are FIVE TIMES the national average. Much of that is near wetland areas.
“Third, retiring baby boomers don’t have to be near urban jobs. We’re practically stampeding into areas that were once rural.
“What all this means is NOT that we have to prevent people from living where they want to live. It just means that if we are going to keep developing this way, we need to use a little more care and exercise some discipline, or we’ll continue to lose natural public values that contribute to the vitality and economy of this state.”
Food for thought as the legislature tackles this and other environmental issues in 2012.