The Saco River — Portland Press Herald file photo

Lawmakers on the Environment and Natural Resources Committee took nearly three hours of testimony Monday on L.D. 467,  a bill that would have narrowed a resource protection area known as the Saco River Corridor.

And then, after a brief caucus, the committee quickly killed the bill.

It’s unusual, although not unprecedented, for a legislative committee to hold a public hearing on a bill and vote to defeat it in one day. Typically there’s at least one work session and debate before that happens. But not on this proposal. Why?

Lawmakers on the committee told the Portland Press Herald that they quickly voted to defeat the bill after being persuaded to do so by opponents (This is also rare.). The latter included residents and landowners adjacent to the Saco River Corridor, an area established in 1973 and designed to protect water quality, fish and wildlife populations and to maintain natural erosion controls, all by prohibiting certain activities and development within 500 feet of the mean high water line. Among other benefits, the river provides drinking water for several communities along the watershed.

The bill was sponsored by freshman Rep. Nathan Wadsworth, R-Cornish. Wadsworth said Tuesday that the proposal was designed to eliminate redundant regulations and to find a balance “between the science of shoreland zoning and landowners’ rights” for those who own property outside of typical shoreland zoning areas and the corridor, which is more restrictive. Property rights is a typical cudgel against conservation districts, so Wadsworth’s explanation for submitting the bill makes some sense. However, at least one opponent who testified Monday raised the question of whether Wadsworth had a conflict of interest.

Wadsworth acknowledged that he’d fielded that same complaint prior to the hearing.

“That’s not the case at all,” he said.

The appearance of conflicts of interest are a common occurrence in the Legislature. That’s because being a lawmaker is a part-time job and those who work in specific fields are often assigned to committees and asked to sponsor bills based on their expertise or profession. That can put lawmakers in a compromising position.

This case is a bit different. Wadsworth works as a real estate agent for Wadsworth Woodlands, a logging and forestry company headquartered in Cornish. His father, John Wadsworth, owns the company and testified in support of the bill Monday. His family owns several parcels of land in the Hiram and Cornish area. Very little of the Wadsworth land appears to be within the Saco River Corridor, according to tax records. However, Wadsworth Woodlands creates forest management plans and harvests timber on property enrolled in the state’s Tree Growth program, which provides steep property tax discounts for landowners who agree not to develop the property, but maintain it as a woodlot.

There is a lot of property enrolled in Tree Growth along the Saco River Corridor, including 6,943 acres in Hiram and over 6,100 acres in Cornish, according to data from the Maine Forest Service. Theoretically, the senior Wadsworth could financially benefit from the ability to harvest more timber along the corridor if the bill passed, while his son could benefit if he helped the family business develop more land.

The bill also received strong support from the Professional Logging Contractors and the Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine  — a big proponent of the Tree Growth program and timber harvesting.

Despite all that firepower, as well as testimony from the Department of Environmental Protection that reads like advocacy for the bill despite the agency’s neutral position, the committee unanimously voted against it. Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, the committee chairman dismissed speculation that Wadsworth had a conflict of interest, although he acknowledged that the perception could have been problematic if the proposal gained any momentum.

When asked if the perception was a consideration in the bill’s quick defeat, he said, “I don’t think so, but I don’t consider it a conflict. I really don’t.”

Likewise, Rep. Richard Campbell, R-Orrington, who made the motion to spike the proposal, said the decision to quickly kill it was because the proposal “had no value.”

Wadsworth said the only reason he brought the measure forward was because a constituent requested it. He did not say who the constituent is, although he noted that there have been local efforts to get rid of the Saco River Corridor Act.

None of those efforts have been successful. And this one, whether there was a real conflict or not, is headed for the legislative scrap heap.



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