House must table this rush to quiet the people

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Sen. Peggy Rotundo is not prone to exaggeration or agitation. That’s why, when she raises alarm over a bill to restrict the procedure for enacting a people’s veto, we must listen.

That bill, titled “An Act to Amend the Laws Governing the Enactment Procedures for Ordinances,” limits the time citizens have to petition against unwanted development projects. It is, as Rotundo explains, better described as a means by which developers – like Wal-Mart – can bulldoze through a project before voters have the time to organize in protest.

We agree with developers that limiting the time to block a project is warranted, but the 75-day limit permitted here is just simply not enough.

Government is notoriously slow and it seems backward to require the people to move faster than lawmakers ever could.

Rotundo said she’s never seen any bill lobbied as hard as this one, or one lobbied under so much disguise, which is enough to give pause.

The bill, which was approved in the Senate last week, has moved to the House. We encourage House members to table this one until the ramifications for developers and voters can be better understood.

If this bill had been law in 1987, Portlanders would not have had the time necessary to block the “Fisherman’s Wharf” condominium development along the waterfront.

In 2000, the citizens of Bangor would not have had the time needed to succeed in petitioning against the location of a Wal-Mart in a wetland area.

The time to thoughtfully consider petitions can also favor developers.

In 2001, a small group of Farmington citizens opposed a ordinance change to accommodate a Wal-Mart expansion, which voters later rejected. That same year, voters rejected a citizen initiative to block development of the Island View low-income housing project in Portland because they had the time to examine the neighborhood impact and weigh that against the housing need.

There must be a point – beyond land-use approval and issuing building permits – at which developers have too much invested to run the risk that a project will be blocked by an organized petition drive. Developers have a right to expect a reasonable platform from which to plan.

As Rotundo points out, though, more and more developers negotiate with town officials quietly until a deal is struck. And, once voters hear of plans, it is unreasonable to allow a mere 75 days to organize and submit a petition, especially in cities – like Lewiston – where the charter stipulates petitions be made available for signature at City Hall for 60 days. That leaves precious little time to hold an election, never mind the up-front time it takes to craft referendum language.

Lawmakers are now in hurry-up mode, trying to finish up a lot of work as they zoom toward the end of the session, so it makes sense to put this particular bill aside for now. Setting such a restrictive time limit on the voice of the people is not good law.

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