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Snowe-Mello bill would weaken environmental regulations
MAINE — A shoreland zoning bill proposed by Senator Lois Snowe-Mello (R-Poland) is one of several new pieces of legislation raising the hackles of environmental groups in Maine.
Snowe-Mello's proposal takes aim at an environmental regulation that she says is a violation of the United States Constitution.
Her bill would change statewide shoreland zoning regulations to allow unregulated new building and development as close as 75 feet to a body of water. The current law sets the restriction at 250 feet.
"It's property rights," said Snowe-Mello, "I'm looking at areas where people have bought property and they can't use it. They bought it before this statute changed, and now the property that they've bought is unusable."
"That's not right. That isn't fair to that person who is invested, has taken years investing in a piece of property for their retirement or have bought property and it was still 75 feet and all the sudden they changed it to 250 feet and now they can't do with their property what they imagined. It's wrong to willy-nilly make these changes and not have any consideration whatsoever for those people that have bought that land."
According to the EPA, the current restrictions have been in place since 1971, when they were instituted as a way of helping towns regulate the areas around their lakes and streams.
Snowe-Mello's claim that the current law is a violation of property rights has come under fire, and seems to be at odds with over 100 years of court rulings.
Shoreland zoning is classified as a regulatory taking. Many regulations of that sort have been deemed constitutional under the fifth amendment. In cases dating back over a century, courts have found that property owners do not have the right to use their property in such a way that is harmful to other members of their community.
"The arguments that form the basis of [Snowe-Mello's] view are philosophical, but these arguments don't relate to the constitution as it has been applied," said Jeff Pidot, a constitutional lawyer who was head of the Maine Attorney General's Natural Resources Division for 17 years. "Property rights are balanced against the community's interest. It's a way of protecting property owners from each other."
When asked what constitutional rights she believed the zoning laws violated, Snowe-Mello said, "I don't know, I've been told it's in the constitution."
Environmental organizations are up in arms about the potential change.
Michele Windsor, project manager at Oxford County Soil and Water Conservation District, believes that the threats posed by lessening regulations constitute a potential harm to the community. She points to phosphorous run-off and its consequences as one of the most dangerous effects of lessening shoreland zoning.
"Phosphorous contributes to algae bloom in our lakes and streams," she said. "There's a certain amount of buffer area that gives nature a chance to filter it out."
"Phosphorous is ever-present, and when you disturb soil and cause erosion it makes its way into bodies of water."
Algae blooms that result from an overabundance of nutrients such as phosphorous, rob lakes and streams of oxygen. According to Windsor, this has a negative effect on the fish and other living things.
Bruce Cook is president of the Lakes Association of Norway. He lives on a lake in Norway, and can see the logic behind the change.
"It's a complicated issue," said Cook. "I live on a lake, and as a property owner, it can be a pain."
Nevertheless, he fears lessening the restrictions could be a detriment to the community.
"If we have more roads nearer the water, there is more runoff, and with less land to run through, phosphorous can lead to more algae," said Cook. "If the lakes go bad, shoreland property would be devalued. It would be tough on the towns."