State Senate votes to restrict petition drives

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AUGUSTA – The state Senate approved new limits Wednesday on the ability of towns and their residents to fight unwanted development projects.

In a floor fight lead by Lewiston state Sen. Peggy Rotundo, a Democrat, and Sen. Dana Dow, R-Waldoboro, opponents tried to stop the legislation and then to amend it to make it less restrictive. While they were unable to stop the bill, a compromise reached with the bill’s supporters did extend the amount of time that municipalities and residents have to react to development proposals.

As it stands now, the legislation would give a community 75 days after the issuance of a building permit to complete any efforts to stop the development, including the completion of a petition drive and referendum election.

After talking with Lewiston officials about the process for a citizens’ initiative, Rotundo said she’s convinced that 75 days is not enough time. At least 10 residents have to come together with the city to create the petition and then people have 60 days to come to city hall to sign. After the signatures are verified, the city council then schedules the vote, usually to coincide with the next citywide ballot.

“Even 75 days doesn’t give the people enough time to get through the process,” Rotundo said. “And there’s nothing that says the city council has to schedule the election within the 75 days. There’s no way this could be done in Lewiston within 75 days.”

Supporters of the bill said it is a question of fairness for businesses and a way to promote the development of affordable housing.

“There’s no question for me and many on my committee that this bill is about standing up for fairness, predictability and consistency,” said Sen. Elizabeth Schneider, D-Orono, and chairwoman of the State and Local Government Committee that worked on the bill. “If you believe, like me, that once rules and laws are set people should be able to depend on them for fairness and consistency, then the current set up will not pass muster.”

South Portland Democratic Sen. Lynn Bromley, who sponsored the legislation, said her determination to see the bill become law rests on the desperate need in some parts of the state for affordable, work force housing.

“We believe fervently that without this bill, we’re not able to go forward with many of the important affordable housing projects that we must,” Bromley said.

The Maine Housing Authority is among the groups that supports passage.

Opponents countered that the bill has nothing to do with affordable housing, squelches a community’s ability to control its own destiny and undermines the right of residents to petition the government.

Citing research from the Maine Municipal Association, which opposes the bill, Rotundo said that there have been only eight cases in the last 20 years when a referendum to stop a project had gotten to a vote and an affordable housing project has never been stopped.

“The only time there’s been a referendum on public housing, the people in Portland reaffirmed the desire for the project,” Rotundo said. “People here got convinced that this was about fairness toward a guy trying to put a deck on his house or about public housing. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about high impact development.”

After it became clear that opponents of the bill could not stop it, Sen. Scott Cowger, D-Hallowell, offered an amendment that would have attached a public hearing requirement. If developers wanted to take advantage of the 75-day deadline, they would have to hold a public hearing to make sure information about the proposal was generally available. The amendment failed.

“At the end of the day, it’s about the fundamental right to petition the government for a redress of grievances and to control what’s happening in your own community,” Rotundo said. “If we have to err, err on protecting people’s rights.”

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