AUGUSTA — A state senator who is running for Congress tried last month to get legislation passed to help a single constituent by undoing at least part of a legal agreement with the state designed to protect a lake in Aroostook County.

Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said his bill would allow the constituent to avoid $109,000 in fines and maintain the property on Long Lake in a way the state said would violate the law and pollute the lake.

The bill was killed Friday by the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee after the Attorney’s General Office and the Department of Environmental Protection opposed it.

Assistant Attorney General Gerald Reid testified that the bill “is constitutionally suspect. It likely violates principles of separation of powers by involving the Legislature in the resolution of a specific enforcement action, when enforcement of the laws is properly left to the Executive Branch.”

Mark Bergeron, director of the DEP’s Division of Land Resource Regulation, said the bill “would create uncertainty with other ongoing or future enforcement action … because there would be the sentiment that future violators could seek relief from enforcement through legislation, even after agreeing to corrective action measures.”

A FUSS OVER FOLIAGE

Jackson’s constituent is Robert Pelletier, a general contractor in Fort Kent.

“A constituent of mine felt like they didn’t get a fair deal from a state agency,” said Jackson, who is running for the Democratic nomination in Maine’s 2nd U.S. Congressional District. “I thought he had merit.”

In 2011, Pelletier was accused by the DEP of violating the Shoreland Zoning Law and the Natural Resources Protection Act after he had a contractor clear 200 feet of vegetated lake frontage under a permit that allowed him only to stabilize the eroding shoreline.

The clearing created unobstructed lake views from the large home Pelletier built on the property.

Facing $100 a day in fines, Pelletier negotiated an out-of-court agreement with the state that required him to replant the shoreline area with 71 trees, attend a workshop on shoreline stabilization methods and pay a $2,500 fine. He signed the agreement on Feb. 11; representatives from the DEP and the Attorney General’s Office signed it in late February and early March.

But after he signed it and planted 30 trees, Pelletier said he began to “regret” signing the agreement. “I do not like the fact that I can no longer mow” the shoreline, he said.

Jackson said he first contacted the DEP to try to resolve Pelletier’s complaints. But by the time the department responded, Pelletier had signed the consent agreement. So, at Pelletier’s request, Jackson stepped in.

On March 11 Jackson put a bill before the Legislative Council, which includes leaders of both parties, asking for permission to introduce the bill after the normal legislative deadline. Jackson, the Senate majority leader, is a member of the council.

A CONSTITUENCY OF ONE

The bill’s text read, “This bill proposes to allow Robert Pelletier to undertake property maintenance activities within a buffer zone on property abutting Long Lake in St. Agatha owned by Mr. Pelletier notwithstanding a consent agreement entered into between Mr. Pelletier and the Department of Environmental Protection.”

The Legislative Council approved the bill’s introduction, and the Environment and Natural Resources Committee held a public hearing on it April 1.

In his written testimony, Jackson, said, “The purpose of this bill is simply to allow Mr. Pelletier to continue maintaining his property as he has in the past and to avoid the $109,000 in fines that would otherwise be applied to him.”

Bergeron, of the DEP, said the bill’s problems included a provision to allow Pelletier to mow within the 75-foot buffer zone along the lake, which would be “in violation of the consent agreement” and “have negative effects on the lake’s water quality.”

Rep. Joan Welsh, the Democratic House chair of the Environment and Natural Resources Committee, said, “We felt that the consent agreement was a reasonable solution” and the bill was “intervening in a judicial process that the Legislature really didn’t have a role in.”

The case dates back to May 2011, when Pelletier filed for a state permit to repair the eroded shoreline at his property on Long Lake. Permits are required for such work because the state considers intact shorelines a crucial part of keeping lakes, streams, rivers and coastline waters clean and healthy.

On June 3, 2011, the DEP approved Pelletier’s permit.

On Nov. 1, a DEP inspection of Pelletier’s lakefront property showed that he had stripped the shoreline bare and torn up the soils along the water’s edge.

In addition, “Department staff found that filling and bulldozing had occurred within seventy-five feet of the lake,” and the rip-rap installed along the shoreline had been placed higher than the law allows.

Bergeron said “these actions constitute clear and serious violations” of the relevant laws.

The DEP twice notified Pelletier in 2011 that he had violated those laws and was liable for fines of as much as $100 a day.

Pelletier said he cleared the land because it was the only way he could stabilize the shore using a specially designed cloth and then rocks.

Such violations could have landed Pelletier in court. But landowners who violate environmental laws can avoid court proceedings and potentially high fines by entering into consent agreements with the state.

The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news service based in Hallowell.

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