AUGUSTA — A coalition of environmental advocates on Thursday presented its list of priority bills that the Legislature is slated to address during the abbreviated session.
Several of the proposals could be contentious, including a bill to reform the Land Use Regulation Commission, the state agency that oversees development in the unorganized territories.
The group, dubbed the Maine Environmental Priorities Coalition, also highlighted its opposition to a controversial bill that would allow landowners to file legal claims seeking compensation from the state for zoning and regulations that diminish the value of a landowner's property by more than 50 percent.
Additionally, the coalition touted its support for a citizen initiative that would increase the state mandate that power companies derive a certain percentage of electricity from renewable resources.
The latter is fiercely opposed by Gov. Paul LePage, who has called the initiative "a scam" designed to "line the pockets of special-interest groups." The governor last year attempted to freeze the state's current Renewable Portfolio Standard, arguing that it increased residential electricity costs.
Lawmakers last year rejected the governor's effort to halt RPS, which increases every year according to statute. Advocates of the program say it buoys the state's developing renewable energy economy while weening the state from electricity derived from fossil fuels. Advocates challenged LePage's claim that RPS plays a significant factor in increasing electricity costs, adding that the governor's plan to freeze the program would save ratepayers only $5 per year, or 40 cents a month.
The coalition on Thursday repeated those arguments in defending the initiative that would increase the RPS mandate.
Maine's RPS is set to reach 40 percent by 2017. The referendum would increase that mandate to 50 percent by 2020, while requiring providers to invest in energy efficiency. Maine's current RPS is 34 percent.
The coalition also addressed the LURC reform proposal. The group said the study commission that met last year had developed many common-sense proposals. However, it remained concerned about a provision that would allow counties to opt out of LURC without first becoming a municipality. It also worried that county commissioners could be appointed to LURC without having any land-use planning qualifications.
The LURC proposal is currently mired in partisan debate in the Legislature's Agriculture Committee. The panel has yet to hold a public hearing on the study commission recommendations.
Meanwhile, environmental groups remain wary of a so-called regulatory takings proposal that they believe will lead to an avalanche of lawsuits and circumvent current and future environmental laws.
Advocates of the proposal argue that it will clarify takings law following rulings in the mid-'80s by the U.S. Supreme Court confirming that landowners have the same constitutional protection — the right to compensation — for regulatory takings as they do in land seizures via eminent domain.
Opponents are quick to point out that takings bills have been widely rejected in other states, including five times in Maine.
Environmental groups also note that the study commission that drafted the current takings bill was steered by Catherine Connors, an attorney specializing in land-use law at Pierce Atwood. Connors' firm, opponents argue, could benefit from a takings law.
"Maine people are facing another round of threats to many carefully crafted bipartisan policies that would put our health, our environment and our economy at unnecessary risk," said Maureen Drouin, director of the Maine Conservation Alliance, adding that LePage and the Republican-controlled Legislature were advancing policies that "reveal an alarming disconnect between the quality of our water, natural areas and wildlife."
The coalition expressed support for the Forest, Farm and Fish Bond, a borrowing proposal that will help fund the Land for Maine's Future program. LMF is used to purchase conservation and preservation easements that protect land from development while ensuring that properties remain open to hunting and recreation.
It's also backing a proposal designed to loosen permitting requirements for people who want to build near so-called moderate-value wetlands.
The proposal, part of a legislative directive last session to expedite permitting, had initially set environmental groups on high alert after the Department of Environmental Protection submitted a plan last month that would have allowed landowners to obtain permits closer to wetland buffer zones without consulting state biologists.
However, environmental groups believe the proposal adopted by the Board of Environmental Protection is a reasonable compromise that protects critical waterfowl areas.