Downeast Coastal Press
October 3, 2006

Landowners Slam New Coastal Building Curbs in Addison, Machias Meetings

Sen. Raye to Submit Bill Asking Review of Controversial Law

By Fred Hastings

Sen. Kevin Raye (R–Perry) has announced that he will submit a bill in the next legislative session titled “An Act to Ensure Reasonable and Equitable Land–Use Opportunities Near Shorebird Habitat,” one seeking to force the Legislature to revisit a new law that expanded the reach of the Natural Resources Protection Act (NRPA). Rep. Ian Emery (R–Cutler) has submitted a similar bill.

The controversial law grants new powers to the Department of Environmental Protection to restrict development within 250 feet of a shoreline designated by state agencies as “shorebird areas,” “waterfowl wader habitat,” “vernal pools” and other classifications.

The law (LD 1981) sailed through the Legislature earlier this year with bipartisan support, championed by environmental groups and Rep. Ted Koffman (D–Bar Harbor), co–chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, who moved the bill as emergency legislation.

Several House members who voted for it now want to take another look at a law they knew very little about – and in retrospect, say received too little public input, legislative scrutiny and debate. They include Rep. Earl Bierman (R–Sorrento), who, at a meeting in Machias last week, said the bill was presented routinely when put to a vote in the House. Rep. Emery agreed, saying that like many bills coming out of committee with a unanimous “ought to pass” recommendation, it received little investigation by most legislators. It passed in the Senate “under the hammer,” with no recorded roll–call vote.

Signed into law by Gov. John Baldacci in an Augusta ceremony May 11, the bill took effect June 8, but it has only been in the last month that its sweeping effect has been felt by local towns, planners, real estate agents and landowners.

According to William Moore, a real estate agent and a member of Addison's planning board, the new building restrictions will have a deleterious effect on the town's economy, affecting 90 percent of property owners, causing a substantial devaluation of property because of loss of market value and leading to a tripling of Addison's property tax rate (see Downeast Coastal Press, September 26, 2006).

Koffman, Littell Defend Law, Process

Koffman stoutly defended the process followed in winning passage of LD 1981 at a public meeting organized by Moore and others September 27 in Addison, which attracted more than 100 people, including David Littell, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection.

Koffman said all the required public hearings were held and those with concerns about the bill had every opportunity to express them. Professional lobbyists filled their role of representing the constituencies they represent, he said.

Addison resident Jim Clark asked Koffman, who is an administrator at the College of the Atlantic with a long affiliation with Maine Audubon, about the degree of public versus special–interest input that went into the legislation. “I don't recollect any conversations,” responded Koffman, when asked whether he had had discussions about the bill with Maine Audubon.

Littell told the Statehouse News Service that “we didn't hear any response from the [Downeast] delegation... or anyone involved with the real estate community, and there were multiple public hearings. We're willing to sit down and talk about these issues and take them back to the Legislature, but the Downeast real estate community wants the entire rule pulled apart.” And, that, said Littell, isn't going to happen while he is commissioner.

George West, a real estate agent in Milbridge, said that he has inquired of the sponsors and supporters of LD 1981 what their take is on how the law affects property values. Addressing Koffman and Littell directly, West said, “But I don't get much from you on this.”

Several people said the new law has devastated them financially. Brian Zappala of Freeport told the state officials that LD 1981 has greatly reduced the value of four shorefront lots he has on the market in Milbridge. “Their net value was $450,000,” he said, “but now they're worth $20,000. You've bankrupted me. How can you do that to people?”

Zappala, a small–businessman, said he paid a premium for the property and last year received DEP and local permits for subdividing it into six 1–acre–plus lots. He put in roads and did other costly prep work. Two of the lots were sold, but he fears that with the new 250–foot setback restriction there will be little demand for the four remaining. “People pay for the views,” he said, adding that he expected a substantial drop in market value in much coastal property if people cannot build within 250 feet of the water.

When pressed, Littell acknowledged that some devaluation is possible as a result of the new law, but he declined to discuss what he said was a “hypothetical.”

Asked why municipal officials, affected landowners and others were just now learning about LD 1981, Koffman faulted the Maine media, saying the state's major newspapers might not have been “attentive” in keeping the public informed of the legislation.

Although several local planning board members said they were never told of the new law, Littell said his department, through the DEP's newsletter, informed municipal officials throughout the state shortly after it went into effect in June.

Raye Announcement Elicits Cheers

Two hours into the Addison meeting, with its sharp, sometimes caustic exchanges, Raye rose to announce that, after listening to the discussion, he intended to file his bill seeking a review of the law in the coming session.

“We need a better assessment of the economic impact,” said Raye, “and a better assessment of the disproportionate impact it has on Washington County. It is the least we can do.”

Raye said he is now convinced that the issue was not properly vetted. Controversial maps outlining the new restricted habitat areas, which sparked a firestorm with local planners and landowners when they became available in recent weeks, were not made available to legislators, he said. “The level of scrutiny was not there. We should hold off enforcement until there is a fuller debate in the Legislature.”

Raye's announcement was received with applause and cheers from the crowd, which consisted largely of local landowners, municipal officials, real estate agents, surveyors, building contractors, owners of building supplies stores and representatives of financial institutions.

Contention Reaches Fever Pitch Next Day in Machias

More than 200 people packed the lecture hall on the campus of the University of Maine at Machias the next day, September 28, to air concerns and vent frustrations. It occurred during a long–planned workshop featuring recent changes to the state's shore–land zoning regulations, a separate legal construct from the NRPA but also addressing land–use restrictions.

Those attending the Machias meeting, which was sponsored by the Washington County Council of Governments, included speakers from the DEP and Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, along with local municipal officials and representatives of planning boards. The event also attracted several candidates for political office in the November election.

Nancy Oden, a longtime environmental activist from Jonesboro who is an independent candidate for the state Senate, used the forum to express her views on LD 1981, joining forces with those critical of the legislative process and calling for a more open and democratic approach.

“There should have been more public discussion and debate on this proposed law so that people would know what it was about,” said Oden. “Then, when all sides had their say and their questions answered, the question should have been put out for referendum in the next election, since this is an issue of great importance.”

When Oden completed her statement, someone spoke out: “We have to speak up now; they're taking our land.” This outburst was followed by another by Tom Finlay of East Machias, the Democratic candidate for the state Senate. “Your legislator voted for this,” he cried out. “You vote your legislator out of office!”

That remark prompted a vocal reproach from Lubec shore owner Erich Veyhl. Referring to the “under–the–hammer” non–roll call vote in the Senate, he said: “He did not. He stood up yesterday in Addison and said he's going to get it repealed.”
Finlay: “He voted for it in the Legislature, in the Senate.”
Veyhl: “He did not!”
Finlay: “Of course he did!”
Veyhl: “He did not. They didn't know anything about it.”
Finlay: “But he should have known.”
Veyhl: “He sure should have and they hid it.”

Another heated exchange soon ensued, between Norm Hunt, a dairy farmer and sawmill operator in Jefferson, and Judy East, the executive director of the Washington County Council of Governments, who scheduled the meeting and opened the discussion.

Hunt, who is in the middle of buying shorefront property in South Lubec for his retirement home, said his negotiations have been put in limbo by revelations of LD 1981. He spoke harshly of the new law and how it came to be, saying America has become a “government of the special interests, by the special interests and for the special interests.”

Noting the lack of published, objective standards and the arbitrary nature of the authority exercised by DEP and IF&W personnel in dealing with building applications on a case–by–case basis, and the hundreds of dollars in filing fees and voluminous paperwork – 144 pages in his case – with the ordeal extended over a period of months, even years, Hunt said he felt “terrorized” by the process. As an aside, he referred to the war in Iraq as how Americans supposedly fight for freedom and get this kind of treatment at the hands of state government. “We are fighting a war in the Middle East and our soldiers are killed daily. For what? For this? … Nobody here knows the law. Who knew of the law? I don't know it. It's scary. It's terrorism.”

The comment prompted a harsh rebuke from East: “I am not a terrorist. This is not about the Iraq war,” she said, insisting that further discussion on LD 1981 cease and the session proceed as planned.

Hunt responded: "I didn't call you a terrorist; I [was referring to] the people who instigated this." He referred again to the fact that no one knew or knows what the law is the DEP claims to be following, then said, "I heard about this [meeting] and drove 150 miles to get here."

Copyright © 2006 Downeast Coastal Press, All Rights Reserved. Posted by permission.

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