Gov. Paul LePage says he can’t help provide financial assistance for repairs on private roads in rural Somerset County damaged by flash flooding in late June, but members of his administration could offer technical expertise to local road associations in the unorganized territory.

The governor, in a letter sent to Somerset County commissioners and local lawmakers Tuesday, put the onus on the Legislature to convene a special session to consider an emergency bill.

More than a dozen miles of roads in the unorganized territory between The Forks and Jackman were damaged in the June 28 flash flooding event, initially trapping some residents and camp owners, exposing boulders and creating craters making roads largely impassable. The cost of repairs has been estimated at upward of $100,000 for at least one road association, plus tens of thousands of dollars for others.

“After carefully reviewing the private road damage and the state budget, the executive branch is unable to provide financial assistance with the repairs, as the Legislature is the only branch of government that can appropriate money,” LePage wrote.

Sen. Rod Whittemore, R-Skowhegan, who was sent a copy of the governor’s letter but said Wednesday that he had not read it yet, was not sure what kind of funding could be proposed in a bill before the Legislature.

“The governor is the one that would have to sign it and prove where the funds are coming from, so it would be best if he (LePage) were to present a bill, and he shows a lot of interest in doing that,” Whittemore said. “That’s what I would like to see.”

Funding possibilities are limited because many of the roads are private and gated, but there are areas that are used by the Maine Forest Service and the Maine Warden Service, Whittemore said.

The Maine Senate is scheduled to meet Thursday morning to confirm appointments, and Whittemore said it would have been “the perfect time” to also call the House in to consider emergency legislation.

“I’m not sure where we’re going to go from here,” he said.

The affected network of roads includes Spencer Road, which is owned by timber company Weyerhauser and connects the area to U.S. Route 201; and several roads off of it that are owned and managed by private road associations, including Old Spencer Road, View Road and No Road. Weyerhauser has since largely repaired Spencer Road.

Local, county and state officials have sympathized with the more than 100 property owners in the area off Spencer Road, but many also have hesitated to say what kind of assistance could be available since most of the affected roads are private and gated, though some are also used by the forest and warden services.

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection; the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry; and the Land Use Planning Commission all have visited the damaged roads, according to LePage’s letter. The Department of Transportation also was in the area to repair damage to a bridge on U.S. Route 201 in the immediate aftermath of the storm, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture also is looking into whether it would be able to provide grant money to assist with repairs.

Last month Somerset County commissioners sent a letter to the governor asking that discretionary funds be allotted for road repairs as well as a letter to the USDA seeking assistance via low-interest loans or grants.

Newell Graf, chairman of the Somerset County commissioners, said Wednesday that he had not seen the letter, which is addressed to him, and he did not return calls seeking comment later in the day.

The intention of the commissioners’ letter was to ask the governor for any type of assistance he might be able to provide, according to Vice Chairman Bobby Dunphy, who said Wednesday that he wasn’t sure whether calling the Legislature back into session was the appropriate response and that it would be premature to consider such action even before having an emergency bill drafted.

He said questions remain about the legality of setting aside state money for repairs on roads that are largely private. Before state officials consider it, they should make sure they have exhausted opportunities for grants or low-interest loans, he said.

“I want to help them, but I want to do it legally,” Dunphy said. “I think that if the Legislature can do that, they would.”

Dan Baumert, a state conservation engineer with the USDA, said after touring the area last week that the area could qualify for a program that helps improve conservation practices in forested areas, but that more research was needed. Baumert did not respond to a call seeking comment Wednesday.

The Department of Environmental Protection also toured the area in late July and is continuing to monitor the water quality of Parlin Pond, a nearby lake that was left murky and brown for days after the road washouts swept silt and other debris into the water, according to David Madore, director of communications, education and outreach for the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

Madore did not say if the storm had affected water quality, but only that the area would not be eligible for funding through the DEP, though it has offered technical assistance to area road associations regarding best practices for stormwater control.

On No Road, one of the most severely damaged in the area, the No Road Owners Road Association already has repaired the road to the point that it is passable and all property owners can access their land, but they are looking at about another $50,000 in repairs to get the road “back to where it was,” association President Ernie Shufelt said.

“If there was a bill or funding available so that fire personnel and the warden service could pass through, that would be great; but we can’t wait and hope for that, because it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen,” he said.

Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, who also wrote to the governor last month asking him to “do whatever you can” to help the area recover, said Wednesday he agreed that handing out state taxpayer money to private roads would set a bad precedent. Even so, McCabe said the governor’s response this week does not do enough to address long-term issues of storm damage and access on private road systems.

“We really need to have a discussion about roads beyond this one event,” McCabe said. “This isn’t the first extreme weather event the state has seen, and we need to have ongoing discussions about how we will respond to those types of issues.”

In an earlier response to McCabe’s letter, LePage said he would be willing to sponsor an emergency bill but referred the issue to Speaker of the House Mark Eves, the Democrat who has a pending lawsuit against LePage and whom LePage accused of “not being interested in properly funding bills that benefit the Maine people.” LePage again took a shot at Eves in his letter this week, saying the speaker “has already indicated that he would gavel in and out immediately without taking up any work if I called for such (a special) session.”

Ana Hicks, Eves’ chief of staff, could not be reached for comment late Wednesday. In a statement July 25, Eves said he felt the situation could best be addressed by the governor working together with McCabe and other Somerset County lawmakers on a solution, something that McCabe said Wednesday still has not happened, even though he is still willing to meet with the governor.

Adrienne Bennett, press secretary for LePage, would not comment Wednesday on whether the governor would be willing to meet with McCabe or whether he had given any thought to what emergency legislation might look like if the Legislature were to be called back into session.

“If I hear of anything new I will share that information,” Bennett said in an email.

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

[email protected]

Twitter: @rachel_ohm

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