AUGUSTA — A bill that would allow development closer to vernal pools drew enthusiastic support from landowners and strong opposition from environmentalists Monday at a hearing before the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee.

Sen. Ron Collins, R-Wells, sponsored L.D. 872, which would reduce, from 250 feet to 75 feet, the required setback from “significant vernal pool habitat” for inland waterfowl and wading birds, and for shorebird nesting, feeding and staging areas.

“I’ve heard enough complaints about it from my constituents at home, I felt it was important to bring it forward,” Collins said.

Vernal pools are temporary pools of water that serve as breeding grounds for some types of amphibians, including salamanders and frogs. Cutting or removing vegetation within the habitat zone is prohibited, unless permission is granted by the state.

Emergency language in the bill – which means it will need support from two-thirds of the House and Senate – refers to the current law as “preventing landowners from deriving economic benefit from developing their land.”

For more than five hours Monday, the committee took testimony for and against the bill.

Opponents, including Maine Audubon, said it’s important to protect the state’s natural resources, which are key to its economy and quality of life.

“Maine lawmakers, scientists and stakeholders have already crafted a balanced, common-sense approach that protects our most significant habitats without overburdening landowners,” said Sally Stockwell, director of conservation for Maine Audubon.

She said the 250-foot setback applies only to “significant” habitat, so it affects less than 25 percent of all vernal pools.

Catherine Bevier, a biologist and professor at Colby College, said amphibians “play a crucial role in any ecosystem.”

“By decreasing this area to 75 feet, as proposed in L.D. 872, we run the real risk of losing whole populations that may not be able to access sufficient resources because the habitat that they need to access has been destroyed,” she said.

The bill got support from three state agencies – the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, the Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Conservation.

Conservation Commissioner Bill Beardsley said salamanders and frogs that need vernal pools can survive in smaller areas than what’s now protected.

“We’re not dealing with an endangered species,” he said. “We’re talking about salamanders and wood frogs.”

The committee will hold a work session in the coming weeks to vote on the bill.

 

MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted 620-7015 or at: [email protected]