AUGUSTA — A bill that would roll back development buffers around Maine’s lakes and rivers found an unexpected opponent at a public hearing Friday: the LePage administration.

Gov. Paul LePage has made reform of the state’s environmental regulations one of his administration’s priorities. However, a senior Department of Environmental Protection official spoke in opposition to the bill during a hearing before the Environment and Natural Resources Committee, which took no vote on the bill.

The quality of Maine’s lakes and waterways is crucial for making Maine an appealing destination for tourists and seasonal residents, said Teco Brown, the new director of the Bureau of Land and Water Quality.

He said the bill could hurt wildlife habitat and water quality and, potentially, harm property values.

“At a time when more and more states are enacting regulations to protect shoreland areas, we should not be looking to decrease regulation to a point where we are threatening water and habitat quality on lakes, streams and wetlands,” he said.

The Republican-sponsored bill, L.D. 219, would weaken the state’s landmark shoreland protection law, which was adopted 40 years ago.

The bill would reduce the jurisdiction of shoreland zoning from 250 feet from a body of water to 75 feet.

Proponents of the change say the law is well-intentioned but over the years has been expanded to the point where it is overly restrictive.

“Like all good things, we sometimes have to ask if we have too much of it,” said Sen. Lois Snowe-Mello, R-Poland, the bill’s sponsor.

Much of the controversy about shoreland zoning is centered on a provision that protects habitat for waterfowl and wading birds.

Shoreland zoning extends 250 feet from the water, but the law allows for various levels of development within the zones, depending the steepness of slopes and the amount of wetlands in the zones.

The tightest restrictions are for areas designated as “resource protection” zones.

Starting in 1990, land could be in a resource protection zone if the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife determined that it had moderate or high value as habitat for waterfowl or wading birds.

In 2006, the department updated its rating system and produced new maps. Those maps enlarged resource protection zones so much that the department later redrew the maps so they would cover less area.

Since then, towns and cities have been struggling to redraft their zoning maps to comply with the new rating system.

At Friday’s hearing, numerous property owners spoke about obstacles they encountered when they tried to build on land that they believed had little value for wildlife.

John Payne of Cumberland, who bought 22 acres near a manmade pond in 2005, said the new maps put half of his land off-limits to development.

“It has basically wiped out my retirement savings,” Payne told the committee.

Brown, from the Bureau of Land and Water Quality, said there has been considerable confusion at the municipal level about how to respond to the new maps. He said his department must do a better job communicating with municipalities, and it should create simpler guidelines.

While the state could look for ways to add flexibility, it should not reduce the jurisdiction of shoreland zoning, he said.

Landis Hudson, executive director of Maine Rivers, an environmental group that opposes the bill, said she was surprised when she heard Brown’s testimony.

“It was a real relief to see someone from the administration speak knowingly and forcibly in favor of protecting natural resources in the state,” she said.

Brown also spoke in opposition to L.D. 434, which would exempt manmade wetlands from shoreland zoning laws.

Tom Bell — 699-6261

[email protected]

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