AUGUSTA — The Maine House on Friday voted 92-50 to reject a bill that would have pushed towns to look closely at abandoned roads and rights of way.

Battling landowners over rights and responsibilities involving abandoned roads or public rights of way has been a regular problem for towns across Maine for decades.

That’s why Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, offered a bill that would clarify state law on the issue, which is disjointed and parts of which date back to the late 1940s. Saviello’s bill would have required towns that abandon or discontinue a road to vote within two years to maintain the town’s right to the property via an easement. Otherwise, under the bill, the right of way would revert to the property owner.

Saviello said the bill would ensure towns had a full inventory of all of the roads for which they were responsible and for which they were no longer responsible. He said the issue arose from a Fayette constiuent’s dispute over a road that the landowner maintains but is regularly used and in some cases abused by other townspeople.

Uncertainty over the road and who owns it has tied up a public land deal that would have allowed the state to buy lakefront property, Saviello said.

The bill is the result of a 2013 legislative resolve that had directed the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry to review the problem and come up with possible solutions.

An amendment to the bill by Sen. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley, would have allowed towns to do the work at their own pace, Saviello said.

“I do believe towns have a responsibility to know where these roads are,” Saviello said. “It’s part of their community.” Saviello, a selectman for the town of Wilton, said his town was in the process of figuring that out.

“We don’t have to do anything to the right of way but we at least need to know where they are,” Saviello said. He said having a complete inventory is also in the town’s best interest for possible future use or other unforeseen needs that may arise.

Some speaking in favor of the bill said it was about protecting landowner and taxpayer rights and not just about backing up town governments.

“If we say to a town, ‘Hey, do some more work than you are already doing,’ of course they are going to say, ‘Oh, no, don’t do that,'” said Rep. Justin Chenette, D-Saco. “But we collectively represent the constituents in our district and for the individuals on these abandoned roads this provides an appropriate outlet.”

But lawmakers voting against LD 1177 said it constituted an unfunded mandate for towns to do something they aren’t required to do under current law. 

State Rep. Joe Brooks, an independent from Winterport, said none of the five towns in his eastern Waldo County district were interested in passing the bill. Brooks said landowners on abandoned roads were already pressuring selectmen.

“They are asking the selectmen, and in one case a council, to do things they’ve never had to do and I’m not sure they want to do and they may not even be trained to do,” Brooks said. “It’s a mandate. Here we go; why are we doing this? Because a couple of communities had problems? What about all the rest of the 460 who didn’t?”

Saviello agreed that the bill, even with the Thomas amendment, may have been an unfunded mandate on towns.

The Senate passed the bill by a vote of 21-14 on Thursday, but Friday’s rejection by the House likely sealed the bill’s fate for this lawmaking session, which is set to end April 17.

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