LEWISTON – Gov. Paul LePage wants to relax state rules aimed at protecting vernal pools from development.
Speaking at a business forum Tuesday at the University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston-Auburn campus, LePage said that proposal will be part of a major legislative package intended to reduce and streamline state regulations.
Vernal pools are small, shallow bodies of water that dry up for part of the year. Because they have no fish in them, they are relatively safe places for amphibians to breed and spend the first few weeks of their lives before they crawl out into the forest.
A state law protecting “significant” vernal pools took effect in 2007. Le-Page said he is sympathetic to developers who complain that the rules often make it too difficult to build.
“We want to address vernal pools,” he said. “If they are intermittent and dry up after rainfalls, I am going to recommend we ignore them.”
Tuesday’s forum, organized by the Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce, was one of 22 “red tape removal” audits that LePage has planned throughout the state.
Dan Keneborus, vice president of commercial lending for Camden National Bank, told LePage that Maine’s vernal pool law is frustrating many developers and builders.
“It just drives so many people crazy,” he said. “I just wish some of those rules would get pushed back or eliminated.”
The issue has come up at several of LePage’s red tape audits.
Environmentalists say the rules don’t prohibit development, but require that it be done in a way that is the least damaging to vernal pools.
For all the complaining about the rules, they have rarely blocked projects, said Ted Koffman, who co-chaired the Legislature’s Natural Resources Committee when the law was passed and now works as Maine Audubon’s executive director.
“This has been a bogeyman, and I don’t think it’s justified,” Koffman said.
He said vernal pools provide habitat that is critical not only for frogs and salamanders, but to all the animals that eat them, including great blue herons, egrets, foxes, skunks, raccoons and minks.
The main problem with the current rules is that they can delay a project for a year, said Gary Vogel, who chairs the legislative committee of the Maine Real Estate & Development Association.
The rules apply only to vernal pools that are deemed “significant” and extend protection to woodlands within 250 feet of the pools. Determining whether a vernal pool is significant requires biologists to measure the abundance of egg clumps left by wood frogs and salamanders. The counts can be done only in the spring, before the eggs hatch and the pools dry up.
A provision in the law exempts vernal pools that dry out before July 15 in the southern part of the state and July 31 in the northern part. However, the law allows state regulators to override exemptions, which they usually do, Vogel said.
His association has submitted a bill, sponsored by Sen. Chris Rector, R-Thomaston, that would remove regulators’ ability to override the exemption.
“It’s a very small fix,” Vogel said.
The governor did not give any specifics on his proposal, and Vogel said he is not aware of what the governor has in mind.
Rep. Bob Duchesne, D-Hudson, the ranking Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee, said the committee unanimously endorsed the vernal protection law when the bill came up in 2005, but the law is now vulnerable because of the new political landscape and the economic climate.
“There is a feeling that if we protect too much of the environment, we can’t create jobs,” he said. “A lot of people are buying that.”