In 2007, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection began regulating development near significant vernal pools. That action worried some landowners, who saw the new rules as an overreaction to the environmental lobby and an unnecessary infringement on property rights.

But those claims downplay the importance of vernal pools, and can scare people away from taking the steps to properly deal with a vernal pool on their land. It’s a process that can actually prove beneficial for both the landowner as well as the landscape.

The issue is particularly relevant in Scarborough, where the town’s Conservation Commission is starting the third and final year of a project with the University of Maine to map and protect significant vernal pools.

Vernal pools are bodies of water that are the primary breeding habitat for amphibians. A significant vernal pool must be home to threatened or endangered species, such as the spotted turtle, rare species must depend on it for part of the life cycle, or it must have abundant other wildlife.

According to Robert Jordan, chairman of the Scarborough Conservation Commission, vernal pools are vital to the health of an ecosystem, as they provide the habitat for the frogs and salamanders that in turn provide sustenance for other small animals.

“If we want to maintain a healthy population of birds and small mammals, it’s important we keep these vernal pools,” Jordan said.

Scarborough, along with 13 other towns, is partnering with the university to mark potential vernal pools, then seek landowner permission to survey those pools to determine if they are significant or not. Jordan said that out of the approximately 40 vernal pools in town surveyed over the past two years, 13 have been found to be significant.

If a parcel of land is found to have a significant vernal pool, a permit must be obtained from the DEP in order to develop within 250 feet of the pool.

But this should not frighten landowners, who can still get value out of their land if it is found to house a vernal pool, said Bob Shafto, executive director of the Maine Association of Conservation Commissions.

One way to retain value, said Shafto, is to place a permanent conservation easement over the land in question, which is often not prime for development anyway if it has a vernal pool. By working with a local land trust or conservation commission, a landowner can be paid for the easement if the land is considered ecologically valuable.

“One way to get value is to build a home. But another way to get value is to get paid for the development rights that you are giving up,” he said. “You end up coming out of it whole.”

Landowners impacting natural resources like wetlands can also maintain development rights through the state’s In Lieu Fee Compensation program. In order to gain a permit to develop near a sensitive area, landowners pay a fee into a fund that is used to purchase natural resources of an equal or greater value, making up for that which is lost to the development.

Though some landowners would balk at more restrictions on their land, the state has provided the means for mitigating any loss of land value.

And while the monetary concerns are certainly important, we agree with Shafto, who asks that we think of the larger picture.

“We share this planet with a lot of living things besides ourselves,” he said. “We have to allow for these species and be careful that we don’t drive them to extinction

The contact for the state’s In Lieu Fee Compensation program is James Cassida. He can be reached at 287-7691 or [email protected]

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