The Maine Viewpoint
Editorial opinions from across the state.
PORTLAND PRESS HERALD
Preserving the Waterfront
For one small stretch of real estate, there are a lot of different development issues along Portland’s central waterfront, so it’s good the city has more than one tool at its disposal. We are seeing two of them playing out at the same time.
An ongoing effort to loosen zoning along the water side of Commercial Street is expected to go before the City Council this summer. At the same time, one central waterfront property owner is applying for a tax break from the city to help finance a renovation of the Cumberland Self Storage building to be reused as an office building for the law firm Pierce Atwood. The two developments are not at odds. They are just different approaches available to the city to address different aspects of the same problem: how to maximize development on the waterfront without crowding out water-dependent businesses.
The tax break would help a private developer finance a deal in exchange for improvements to the pier edges and first floor of the building, which would be reserved for marine uses and comply with current zoning. The city would, in effect, use the tax break to get the developer to do what he would not do otherwise, which is invest in marine business.
The zoning changes could give other landowners additional revenue streams that would support waterfront businesses. The cost would not come as loss of tax revenue, but, potentially, as loss of space for commercial or industrial water-dependent business.
Changing the zoning would require a very delicate balance for the city, and the council will eventually have to decide whether Portland can continue to have a working waterfront with the loss of some facilities.
The deep water in Portland’s central waterfront is a valuable asset that the city should not endanger with too-loose zoning. The businesses and the jobs they produce cannot be moved to some other part of the city. Once working waterfront is lost to other uses, like recreational boating or residential development, it never comes back. Portland should use all of the tools at its disposal to encourage development in the central waterfront while preserving the industrial deep-water access that can’t easily be replaced.
KENNEBEC JOURNAL, AUGUSTA
Money Didn’t Talk
While big-spending candidates in June’s primaries, such as Les Otten, Bruce Poliquin, and Rosa Scarcelli, were bucking up their dispirited supporters after conceding defeat, one of the stingiest candidates, Waterville Mayor Paul LePage, was celebrating with his volunteers after capturing nearly 38 percent of the vote in a seven-way Republican primary.
LePage’s victory was not the only sign that this may be a year where things don’t fall into line with the rules for Maine politics that we have learned from past races. A well-financed campaign to save the tax-reform law, which had been crafted, modified, and refined by the legislature over several years, was among the biggest losers of the night. Its thumping at the polls looks like a rejection of the elite leaders in politics and business who backed it. While the tax package was put together almost entirely by Democrats, June’s numbers suggest that a lot of Democrats voted for its repeal. The victory of Question 1 means that tax policy will be at the center of the gubernatorial campaign, and each candidate’s ideas on tax policy will be central to the debate.
LePage was the most surprising story to come out of the year-long primary campaign. His compelling life story, direct speaking style, and embrace of the Tea Party movement made him an interesting candidate. So did his experience as a business and political executive. But without much money, paid staff, or TV airtime, LePage usually was mentioned as more of a wild card than a contender. His victory, which was not predicted in any of the public polls, is a sign that we might have to consider that some different forces are at play in this election.
Among the rules that may need to be rewritten is that Maine elections are battles for the middle ground, and that parties looking to win in November should be looking for nominees who could best lay claim on the moderate and independent voters who will turn out in the fall. LePage does not fit that mold. Neither does Democratic nominee Libby Mitchell. Mitchell is the most experienced politician in her primary, holding key leadership positions over decades, serving as the speaker of the House, and currently as Senate president. But Mitchell is better known as a key policymaker in her party and is no critic of the size and scope of state government. Her sponsorship of a bill that would have made Maine the only state in the country to require paid sick days for workers is the kind of polarizing idea that will win her votes from progressives, but probably won’t play well with the middle of the electorate.
Some analysts were calling independent candidate Eliot Cutler of Cape Elizabeth the primaries’ biggest winner, because he could appeal to the moderate voters from both parties as well as unenrolled voters who make up the largest segment of the electorate.
But that would be a very conventional assessment, and the way June’s voting went, it’s probably not a good time to apply that kind of thinking to this election.
SUN JOURNAL, LEWISTON
Penalty is Chicken Feed
Given the scale of the egg-farm operation in Turner, and the shocking nature of the animal cruelty charges against its operator, a $34,675 state fine is, bluntly, too small. Maine Contract Farm agreed in June in 8th District Court to pay that amount in fines and court costs. With about five million birds in its Maine barns, that works out to less than a penny per hen, and it pales in comparison to other penalties levied over the years against this company.
Of course, the charges only involve a very short period of time and specific cruelty to only ten hens, all documented in a hidden-camera investigation by an animal rights group.
Still, we have little doubt that inhumane practices were standard operating procedure until the state raided the farm. On top of the penalties, Maine Contract Farming agreed to pay a hundred thousand dollars to the Maine Department of Agriculture to fund ongoing monitoring at the Turner farm and other egg farms across the state.
It was interesting that hog-lot and egg-farm owner Austin “Jack” DeCoster attended the hearing. Under his management, the Turner farm earned a reputation for cutting regulatory corners to increase profits. Wherever DeCoster has gone over the years, conflict and litigation have followed. In 1996, DeCoster was fined $3.6 million for federal health and safety violations at his Turner egg farm. At the time, the U.S. Labor Secretary called living conditions for DeCoster workers “as dangerous and oppressive as any sweatshop we have seen.” In 1999, DeCoster paid $5 million to settle wage-and-hour claims involving three thousand workers. The state of Iowa has sued DeCoster numerous times for water pollution and waste violations on his hog lots in that state, eventually classifying DeCoster as a “habitual violator” of state laws. When DeCoster bought five thousand acres in South Dakota, the state denied him permits to operate under a statute called the “bad actor” law. And DeCoster was once accused of concealing his identity from state officials to invest $110 million in a large Ohio egg farm.
It is also encouraging that Jay DeCoster, Maine Contract Farming operations manager, is at leastacknowledging the importance of following state law. “The mistreatment shown on the video was unacceptable, and we took swift and broad-scale action to respond,” he said in a news release.
And state veterinarian Don Hoenig has apparently affirmed that the farm is in “substantial compliance” with state regulations. “There appears to have been major commitment at all organizational levels . . . to ensure a higher level of bird care and more scrupulous attention to detail in the management of the flocks,” he is quoted as saying.
The agreement will include a training program for workers that covers humane care, hiring of a full-time manager to oversee hen health, and regular monitoring and flock review by an avian veterinarian. Still, we hope the state stays on its toes. The penalties in this case are too small to alone guarantee future compliance.
CAMDEN HERALD GAZETTE
Caution to the Wind
When University of Maine Professor Habib Dagher spoke to a public forum in Rockport in May, he said one of the virtues of deep-water offshore wind development is its location below the horizon.
His suggestion, that the greatest environmental concerns raised by such projects are the effects on human eyes and ears, ignores the potential that large vibrating turbines and high-energy transmission facilities could have for harming those parts of the ocean ecosystem whose sensitivities may fall beyond the range of our perception. Marine mammals navigate by using sound, which travels over greater distances under water than in the air.
Electrical current from improperly grounded generators or transmission facilities could create other dangers.
Deep-water wind might provide the energy to fuel our vehicles, heat our homes, and provide thousands of Mainers with jobs, as Governor John Baldacci, former Governor Angus King, and dozens of other politicians, scientists, and developers have claimed. But before Maine rejoices with bright lights and amplified music, we encourage a renewed focus on conservation and a cautionary approach to this new technology.
BANGOR DAILY NEWS
The Big Mo’
Human psychology is an odd thing. Tell someone the glass you set before him is half-full, and he responds with feelings of optimism. Tell him it is half-empty, and he feels loss. That simple but profound psychological truth actually plays an important role in Maine’s fate. Repeat enough times that Mainers are overtaxed, that it’s a tough place to do business, and that our young people leave for better jobs, and those who are listening — in and outside Maine — see it as a half-empty place.
Yet a formula that considers personal income growth, population growth, and employment growth produces a state “economic momentum list” that has Maine in ninth place in the U.S. and tops in New England.
Maine must take a long look in the mirror, and these next five months leading to the election of a new governor and legislature is a good time to do so. The state’s flaws must be confronted, but in a way that allows for specific improvements. Private businesses, as represented through lobbying groups, must identify incentive programs that work, regulatory hurdles that are duplicative and unrealistic, and accept that some compromise short of their ideal is likely to be reality. Repeating the decades-old wail that Maine has an awful business climate is not the way forward.
Often, we learn the truth about ourselves through the eyes of others. Maine has had this opportunity through the Brookings Institution’s 2007 “Charting Maine’s Future” report. Among its recommendations are that Maine polish its quality of place; fund research and development of forest bioproducts, biotechnology, and composite materials; and lower its property and income taxes.
Those who would take charge of building Maine’s momentum should focus on population growth, education as a means of increasing personal income, creating entrepreneurial opportunities, and protecting quality of life.
As Maine began climbing out of the devastating 1991 recession, former-Governor Angus King helped jump-start the state’s self-image with his “Maine Is On The Move” campaign. Building those qualities back into Maine’s self-image is important, because they make the state attractive. That attractiveness builds on itself and creates its own momentum.
MORNING SENTINEL, WATERVILLE
Protecting our Forests
Anyone who has stumbled onto an old stone wall in the woods knows that the way we use land changes radically over time. Mainers from 1850 would be shocked to see how all the fields and homesteads that were cleared for farmland in their day have been allowed to grow back as forest, making Maine’s woods as plentiful and productive as they have ever been.
It is clear, however, that another transition is under way. Development pressure means that the New England forest is shrinking. New kinds of companies that own smaller parcels and that are looking for faster financial returns than traditional industrial owners have the potential to speed up development. That trend will have economic and environmental damage if mitigating steps are not taken, according to a study issued last week by Harvard University. The study’s authors propose putting 70 percent of New England’s forest into protection that would permit commercial and residential use.
An ongoing effort, the Great Forest Initiative, has brought landowners, environmentalists, and the state Forest Service personnel together to find a uniquely Maine approach to preserve woodlands, while letting commercial forestry and recreation expand. By keeping large tracts of woodland intact, the Maine woods can remain home to rare and endangered species. The initiative’s proposal is to start with a series of pilot projects that would buy development rights from landowners and provide incentives to manage their holdings in ways that maximize their environmental value. The initiative is seeking the support of the federal government, which would be the source of funding needed to make this happen.
Preserving Maine’s forest is an important goal, and it’s important to remember that it won’t happen on its own. The forest in its current state has not always been