‘Best we’ve felt in a long time,’ Commissioner Whitcomb says after latest ACF merger changes approved
The discussion of the ACF merger bill Thursday was quiet, short and mostly technical, but the vote to approve this version of LD 837 was another major step, said ACF Commissioner Walt Whitcomb.
When asked after the work session if he was relieved, Whitcomb smiled. “Oh yes,” he said. “It’s the best we’ve felt in a long time.”
The ACF Committee voted to approve various changes in Parts B, C and D of LD 837, including shifting of positions in the department, thus avoiding a bill that would have added any new ones, and changes in names, such as replacing the word “bureau” with “division.”
Whitcomb also presented the committee with an organizational chart of the department (which preserves the four-bureau structure proposed by the Natural Resource Network) and a chart of the commissioner’s office.
All nine committee members present voted yes, but the two who had voted no consistently Rep. Peter Kent, D-Woolwich, and Rep. Brian Jones, D-Freedom, were absent from the room, as were two supporters, Sen. James Boyle, D-Cumberland, and Rep. Robert Saucier, D-Presque Isle.
Still, Whitcomb was cheered by the 11-2 majority the bill achieved in earlier votes. “We had a good vote the other day,” he said. “And we liked the look of that.”
It will take time to get all the changes incorporated into LD 837 and, since some are substantive, the committee will vote again. Then the bill will be considered by the House and Senate.
“I certainly expect it will come up within the next 10 days,” Whitcomb said. “It’s going to be debated. They’ve got hundreds of bills to debate so there’s a scheduling issue.”
With the merger details ironed out, Whitcomb said, the committee can go forward with the ACF budget, which was approved last week.
“My sense is the major decision was made just now and the (ACF) budget will chase that decision,” Whitcomb said Wednesday. “I’ve had no indication they want to tinker with the budget.”
After rejecting two earlier nominees this session, the ACF Committee confirmed two LUPC commissioners on Wednesday. Newcomer Everett Worcester of Piscataquis County was approved 8-3 and current LUPC chair Gwen Hilton of Somerset County won unanimous confirmation.
“And that’s the first time that’s happened, so congratulations!” said Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Aroostook, told Hilton.
Worcester was not supported by Rep. Craig V. Hickman, D-Winthrop, Rep. Brian L. Jones, D-Freedom, and Rep. Robert J. Saucier, D-Presque Isle.
The issue of county commissioners also serving on LUPC played a larger part in the rejection of two earlier nominees for Somerset and Piscataquis. In March, the ACF Committee confirmed Aroostook County Commissioner Paul Underwood, 9-3, but rejected Somerset County Commissioner Lloyd Trafton, 9-3. Duane Lander, the first Piscataquis nominee, was voted down 7-6, after the Natural Resources Council of Maine questioned how he was chosen by Piscataquis County commissioners and also because “he has openly advocated abolishing LURC.”
“It looks to me like we’re basically loading up the LURC board with county commissioners, and that’s what I was afraid of,” Rep. Russell J. Black, R-Wilton, said in a March 27 story in the Bangor Daily News. “I want, and a lot of legislators want, a wide range of expertise. We’re getting away from individuals who have any expertise in land planning or zoning, which we really need on that board.”
Hilton, whose current LUPC term ends in July, also referred to the issue Wednesday when asked why she had not initially sought reappointment. In part, she said it was because she was “feeling a little burnt out,” after eight years, including serving as chair since 2010, and the challenging transition from LURC to LUPC. But another factor was she felt Somerset County commissioners had decided they “wanted one of their own” to fill the position.
“But since then the position became available and I thought about it some more and felt it was really important,” Hilton said. “So I decided to try to take on another term.
Hilton’s application lists years of planning experience, which was also stressed by two legislators who supported her nomination, Rep. Ann E. Dorney, D-Norridgewock, and Rep. Paul E. Gilbert, D-Jay.
But Worcester’s resume traced a different path. A Columbia Falls native, he has a PhD in educational administration from the University of Texas in Austin, but after he and his wife moved back to Maine in 1975, he has focused on selling and appraising real estate, and farming and marketing blueberries.
“I recognize my education and experience are a bit different than most who serve on this commission,” Worcester told the committee. “I do think however that I possess the knowledge skills and understanding to make a positive contribution to this commission.”
Rep. Jones asked Worcester to talk about how he filled the statutory requirements of a LUPC commissioner, including “expertise in commerce and industry, fisheries and wildlife, forestry or conservation issues in the jurisdiction.”
Worcester cited his real estate experience and said blueberry farming is “a pretty significant business.” He added that he’s also operated a store in Milo, a storage company, and been “in the apartment building business at one time and that was probably the worst thing I ever did, so I no longer do that.”
When Rep. Hickman questioned Worcester about the changes he envisions in LUPC territory in the coming years, Worcester responded with some thoughts about forestry.
“We’ve got a whole changing dynamic in the forestry industry . . . That’s becoming a very different kind of thing,” Worcester said. “So the forestry industry has gone mechanized and big time and it really needs professional oversight with people who know the business.”
Worcester also said he strongly supports LUPC’s community guided planning initiatives. “Involving the people in the planning and zoning makes a lot of sense,” he said. “Those of us who have lived in the unorganized territories a long time never had that sense that we had that ability. Now, I think, we’re hoping we do. “
Hilton also told the committee she is happy LUPC is “moving forward with community guided planning and prospective zoning. And I’m actually very excited about that. I think that’s a good thing and I’m looking forward to seeing how it goes.”
Sen. Roger L. Sherman, R-Aroostook, questioned Hilton about her “ views of private property and how it fits into this whole new LUPC as we’re moving forward?”
Hilton answered that “in my experience in working with committees, municipalities and even on LUPC as well, trying to find the balance between regulation and private property rights is one of the most difficult charges that we have . . . The one thing about the regional planning initiatives that we’re undertaking is that it allows for more public input and involvement in determining what that balance is and coming up with what is appropriate.”
Thanks to UPM’s global Plant-a-Tree initiative, eighth-grade students in Madison planted 500 trees along the Kennebec River at the Madison Boat landing on May 10. Several community partners came together for the event, including the Maine TREE Foundation, Kohl’s Department Stores and Plum Creek Timber Co.
“We are pleased to have this opportunity to work with the students, and the plantings we do today will enhance and protect the beauty of the shoreline along the Kennebec River for many years to come,” said Dan Mallet, UPM Madison manager of sustainability.
Sherry Huber, executive director of the Maine TREE Foundation, welcomed the students saying, “We are excited to be part of this celebration and thrilled that the students are here. The Maine TREE Foundation’s mission is to educate and advocate for the sustainable use of the forest and one of the ways we achieve this is through partnering with the forest community to sponsor school events such as this.”
Twenty five eighth grade science students, led by their teacher, Kathy Bertini, not only participated in the tree planting but walked to and from the riverfront site, a distance of more than two miles. The were led in the planting of 500 white pine trees by Mark Doty, community affairs manager from Plum Creek Timber Co.
“The students did a wonderful job,” Doty said. “It is rewarding to see the students learn and to leave their lasting legacy to the future.”
The UPM Plant-a-Tree initiative is being celebrated at sites in several countries including China, Germany, the United Kingdom, Finland, Estonia, Uruguay and Russia. These events not only provide the opportunity to plant trees, but to educate school students and the communities about the importance of sustainable forestry, biodiversity, renewable resources, ecology and much more.
MFPC staff and board members spent two productive days at the 2013 Northeastern Forest Products Equipment Expo at the Bangor Auditorium and Civic Center May 17-18. Sue McCarthy and Pat Sirois staffed the booth Friday, while Patrick Strauch and Roberta Scruggs were on hand Saturday. Dick Robertson and Allan Ryder also pitched in.
“It was a good show — about 200 exhibitors.,” Pat Sirois said. “All of the latest technologies were on display. Show was well attended which indicates to me, people are feeling upbeat about business and the potential of investing in equipment. When you look at the investment made by vendors, it’s a sign of encouragement. Some of the equipment vendors had been there for three days setting up.”
We talked to quite a few people, including members and potential members. Seventeen signed up to receive our newsletter and forest news clippings for three months. There were a fair number of conversations at our booth about what’s going on in the Maine Legislature — even with some legislators, such as Sen. Doug Thomas, R-Penobscot. ACF Commissioner Walt Whitcomb also stopped by. Some attendees talked to us about wood supplies and others about the forest products economy.
Lots of folks stopped by our booth to try to “Name that tree” — MFPC’s wood samples were quite a crowd pleaser. People spent considerable time trying to identify the samples. Nearly all guessed samples such as white ash and American beech, but the black cherry and hophorn beam stumped all but a few.
“The live trees would have been easier to identify than the samples, which were kind of dried out,” Sue said. “Some of them must have been 30 years old.”
Rules and regulations went into effect recently permitting truck configurations legally allowed on Maine state highways to operate on interstate highways in Maine during the period that the federal 100,000-pound pilot project is in effect.
The 20-year pilot project championed by Sen. Susan Collins, and finally signed by the President on November 18, 2011, contained a provision that permitted truck configurations legally allowed on Maine state highways to be allowed on interstate highways in Maine. In order for configurations other than the six-axle combination trucks at 100,000 pounds to operate on the interstate in Maine, state law had to be changed accordingly.
In the last session of the Legislature, MFPC, the Maine Motor Transport Association (MMTA) and others supported legislation that gave the commissioner of the Maine Department of Transportation (MDOT) the authority to grant additional configurations the ability to operate on the interstate highway system. This legislation passed, and became law in 2012. Over the course of the last couple years, Maine DOT researched the issue from an engineering perspective and determined that the interstate roads and bridges were designed to accommodate the configurations allowed on Maine’s state highways.
“The trucking industry needs to be continually mindful that the ability to operate on the interstate at the more productive weight limits is a pilot project that is set to expire in 2031,” the MMTA said in a press release. “We need to continue to demonstrate every day that it is safe and effective. Working together, we have no doubt we can do so.”
It’s important for landowners to participate in the upcoming hearing on the LUPC certification process. The document defines the land use standards that are addressed by LUPC when an application for a project in the unorganized territory is submitted to DEP for Site Law permit. Environmental advocates have argued that the CLUP itself should be a compliance standard. Land owners have fought to make sure that the CLUP is used to guide zoning districts and land use rules, and is not itself a land use standard for each permit. We will send out more information about MFPC concerns prior to the hearing.
By Executive Director Patrick Strauch
- Energy, Utilities and Technology (EUT) — The wind power bills in general are being consolidated into a study committee that will address these issues for further discussion in the next legislative session. LD 385 contains a provision to prohibit wind power sites in the presence of fir-heartleaved birch subalpine forest vegetation community type. This is dangerous precedent because it takes data collected in the spirit of a collaborative relationship with the Maine Natural Areas Program and uses this information as a prohibition. We will fight against NRCM, AMC and Audubon on this issue.
- LD 491, An Act Regarding Timber Harvesting on Land Managed by the Division of Parks and Lands. This bill places a prohibition on the use of Canadian bonded labor on BLP contracts. When introduced in the 125th Legislature, then Attorney General William Schneider cited constitutional issues that would place state law in conflict with federal law. The committee sought an updated interpretation by current Attorney General Janet Mills, whose office substantiated the conflict in previous opinions. Despite this concern the bill was passed along party lines by the Democrats. Sen. Troy Jackson’s passion for this issue is clouding the integrity of the legislative process.
- LD 1302: Revisions to the metallic mining act have been carefully watched over by the Irving Woodlands team. Several of the original provisions in the bill have been eliminated but new standards for closure time and water quality have been adopted in the majority report.
- LD 143, An Act To Clarify the Permitted Use of Aquatic Pesticides, was unanimously approved in the Environment and Natural Resources Committee. This was important because the DEP can now issue a General NPDES Permit for pesticide applications throughout Maine in accordance with recent federal requirements.
- LD 734, regarding corporate income tax disclosure, was recognized by the Taxation Committee as a unfriendly business requirement and defeated.
- Within the EUT Committee there is a large omnibus bill focusing on energy issues. We’re participating in the process with interest in maintaining energy efficiency funding for our members and supporting ways to efficiently bring more natural gas to Maine. We’ve distributed this document widely and interested in your thoughts.
- After discussion lasting into Wednesday night, the ACF budget was tentatively approved, but will be revisited.
- Resolution on the budget remains one of the biggest challenges for the legislature and the executive branch. Solutions need to coalesce soon but the current read of party politics is not promising.
Of course, the outcome of committee votes is important, but we are now moving into the phase of shepherding these bills through the House and Senate for final signature (or veto) by the Governor. It is the period of legislative activity where Michele MacLean, our lobbyist, needs to keep current on all the horse trading that occurs and generally our job is not done until the last legislator goes home! Be prepared for last-minute bills that appear without sufficient notice, which will require action by our members. We will keep you posted.
In a unanimous vote May 16, the Criminal Justice and Safety Committee held over until next year LD 297, the bill that would have armed Maine’s forest rangers. Committee members decided to wait for the report of of a task force ordered by Gov. Paul LePage.
Below is the press release issued by the governor’s office.
The order follows a lengthy debate during the 126th Legislature about Maine Forest Rangers carrying firearms. The Legislature is currently considering LD 297, “An Act to Require Forest Rangers To Be Trained in Order To Allow Them To Carry Firearms” which could dramatically alter the role of government responsibility to the forest products community and lead to tax increases for landowners throughout Maine. In an effort to address the complexity of this issue, the Governor’s task force will develop a set of recommendations including those pertaining to arming forest rangers aids in carrying out their duties or increasing personal safety. Additionally, the group will review and consider opportunities for cross-training and reduction in redundancy among the Maine Warden Service, Maine Marine Patrol, and Maine Forest Rangers. Costs associated with proposed changes will also be a consideration of the task force.
The task force will consist of ten members, appointed by the Governor to include:
- Commissioner of the Department of Agriculture, Conservation, Forestry, ex officio, or designee;
- Commissioner of the Department of Marine Resources, ex officio, or designee;
- Commissioner of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, ex officio, or designee;
- Commissioner of the Department of Public Safety, ex officio, or designee, as chair;
- Colonel Warden, Maine Warden Service, or designee;
- Colonel Maine Marine Patrol, or designee;
- Chief Forest Ranger, Maine Forest Service, or designee;
- One representative of a large landowner (greater than 10,000 acres) engaged in forest management;
- One representative of a small landowner (less than 10,000 acres) engaged in forest management;
- One Forest Ranger currently employed at the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry familiar with the concerns shared by Maine Rangers.
The task force will convene in July and submit a report to the Governor no later than December 1, 2013.
The second meeting of the steering committee for Aroostook’s community guided planning and zoning project was held May 14.
The Land Use Planning Commission initiated Community Guided Planning and Zoning (CGPZ) by soliciting letters of interest. In brief, the process is to be locally desired and driven, allow for broad participation, address property owner equity, balance regional uniqueness with jurisdiction-wide consistency and be consistent with LUPC’s purpose, scope and rezoning criteria. Aroostook County, with the Northern Maine Development Commission (as lead and the county as partner), was selected in February as the initial region to participate.
LUPC and NMDC convened a steering committee in April to determine the process for the planning effort. Steering committee members include landowners, county commissioners, business owners, a municipal service provider, town manager, resident and a representative of an environmental organization. The effort is facilitated by Frank O’Hara of Planning Decisions and Allison Truesdale of LandForms.
At the first meeting on April 24, ideas for the planning effort that were discussed included: risks and opportunities, composition of a steering committee for the CGPZ effort itself, communication with outside groups and individuals, decision-making process, planning process and approval process. Then a proposal was put together by the facilitators, and further refined by the steering committee at the May 14 meeting.
Key points are: locally driven, a modified consensus decision-making process, public participation at multiple opportunities (from one-on-one meetings to public workshops and hearings), asset-based planning (builds upon assets and opportunities rather than starting from needs and trying to fix them), and involvement of property owners, municipal and county officials, planning and economic development organizations, businesses, service providers.
The next step is a meeting on June 4 to finalize the document that sets out, for the land use planning phase, the committee structure and decision-making process.
Once the process has been approved by LUPC and the NMDC Board of Directors, a CGPZ steering committee will be formed and the planning will begin this summer. A number of products might result from the process. LUPC gives as examples:
- “A future land use map with sufficient data analysis and public input to support proposed subdistricts (could introduce new subdistricts)”
- “Marked up zoning maps showing proposed district boundaries”
- “Both a plan and marked up zoning maps (could introduce new subdistricts)”
NMDC is currently working on other regional development projects, including a collaborative Gro Washington-Aroostook sustainable communities regional plan, and a Mobilize Maine regional project focused on renewable energy and information technology/operations. A three-year, $150,000 project is anticipated for the CGPZ effort that will be primarily federally funded and dovetail with other on-going efforts.
Support for the ACF merger stood firm Wednesday, though it was certainly tested when Commissioner Walt Whitcomb told the ACF Committee that they needed to include five new positions in the amendment to LD 837.
“I’m having a hard time understanding how we can combine two departments and end up with more people,” Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Aroostook, co-chair.
Wednesday’s work session could have just been a quick run-through of the changes to the LD 837 amendment that the committee approved 11-2 last week. But when Whitcomb began talking about new positions, he also unleashed a discussion of everything from the size of his office staff, to Di-Cap funding, to the reception a request for new positions would receive in Appropriations.
The five “new” positions, though, were mostly a difference of perspective. Two were inspector positions that had been proposed to be cut, but were reinstated. Two were the directors of the new bureaus, Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources, and Resource, Information and Land Use Planning. The fifth was the director of the Land for Maine’s Future program, which is now directed by Deputy Commissioner Ed Meadows.
“You say we’ve created five extra positions, but in my mind we weren’t creating five extra positions,” said Rep. James F. Dill (D-Old Town), co-chair. “It was more taking what you have and shifting them around . . . It was certainly not our intent to increase administration at all. We were, hopefully, trying to streamline administration and have fewer appointees.”
The commissioner conceded “it could be as simple” as saying the commissioner can designate a division director to become a bureau director. “I’m not saying it’s not solvable,” he said. “I just want you (the committee) to solve it.”
Whitcomb’s initial merger plan would have concentrated supervision in the commissioner’s office. On Wednesday, committee members questioned him several times about the number of appointed positions in the department.
“There were concerns because the commissioner still seemed entrenched in a model of management that we and the committee had moved past,” said Executive Director Patrick Strauch.
The Natural Resource Network’s proposal advocated four bureaus – agriculture, forestry, parks and lands, and resource information and land use planning – centered on the department’s key responsibilities. Committee members, in fact, were still referring to the NRN organizational chart at Wednesday’s session. Sen. Jackson asked Whitcomb to provide an ACF chart next week.
“The NRN proposal seemed to have helped solidify the discussion,” Strauch said, “The committee adopted the framework and then adapted it to address their concerns and the concerns of those in the community.”
So despite the wide-ranging discussion Wednesday, the committee chairs, particularly Rep. Dill, managed to keep the amendment on track. The vote was again 11-2, with only Rep. Peter Kent (D-Woolwich) and Rep. Brian Jones (D-Freedom) voting no.
“I think the committee has been working hard on the bill and has reached a consensus that will carry it through the House and the Senate,” Strauch said. “There is still work to be done to make sure that happens and we will be watching and working.”