WEST NEWFIELD – To protest state-imposed land-use rules that are seen as interfering with property rights, a group of local landowners have joined together to prohibit the public from using their property for traditional activities such as hunting, hiking and fishing.
Anthony Garrity of West Newfield heads the group, called Property Owners Rights of ME, or PORME, which, he said, has about 30 members, including large landowners from Limerick, Newfield, Hiram, Limington and Gorham.
So far, the members of PORME have posted no-trespassing signs on nearly 3,000 acres of local land.
Specifically, the group is upset about shoreland zoning rules, which limit what landowners are able to do within 250 feet of open water and wetlands. The legislation was initially passed in 2006, but municipalities had until last summer to include the rules in their local ordinances.
“Basically what we’re saying is that we’re not going to allow recreation if the state is going to take our property like this,” Garrity said. “The state derives income from selling licenses and permits to snowmobile and hunt and fish, but we’re not being compensated for the loss of our land.”
“We will not accept that our property rights and value can be taken for the public benefit without just compensation,” Garrity added. “We feel we have no other avenue to express our frustration with these arbitrary and unfair regulations.”
At issue is the imposition of land-use rules, particularly restrictions that prevent development. Landowners all across the state are complaining about it, according to state Sen. Ron Collins, whose district includes the towns of Limerick, Newfield, Shapleigh and Lebanon, and state Rep. David Burns, whose district covers Alfred, Limerick, Newfield and Shapleigh.
“I know a lot of folks are concerned about the restrictions from the centerline of a brook or river,” Collins said, “because that means they lose the ability to use a lot of their property.”
To address these concerns, Collins and Burns presented a bill during the recent legislative session that would have reduced a mandated 250-foot setback to the 75 feet allowed before 2006 when the new restrictions were enacted. However, that bill died in committee.
“I support the landowners who are united behind getting their rights back,” Burns said. “When you look at communities like Limerick and Newfield, there are a lot of small streams and waterways. I think the landowners are very unsatisfied with the shoreland restrictions as they now stand.”
While it didn’t approve the bill backed by PORME, the Legislature did approve the creation of a study committee designed to review state laws in regard to the regulatory taking of real property. That 11-member group will report its findings and recommendations back to the Legislature in early December.
The specific duties of the committee, which will hold its first meeting on Oct. 7 at the State House in Augusta, is to “study the issues associated with property rights and the public welfare. In examining these issues, the committee shall review whether barriers to relief from a regulatory taking currently exist,” according to the resolution that created the committee.
Garrity said his group would keep a close eye on the study committee, whose membership consists of state legislators, private landowners and conservation, municipal and business interests, along with a representative from the Maine Attorney General’s Office.
“We will go up to Augusta whenever we can to speak on this issue,” he added.
Garrity, who lives near Rock Haven Lake in West Newfield, first started his protest movement about a year ago in the hope of influencing legislative action on land-use rules, particularly shoreland zoning.
His goals include ensuring that property owners get a seat at the table when new rules are being discussed; that they receive “just compensation” for land they can no longer use; that they’re properly notified of any changes in the laws; and that public hearings regarding proposed land-use regulations are widely advertised.
Garrity is a maintenance mechanic in South Portland and built his house near what he calls the “swampy end” of Rock Haven Lake in 2003, after purchasing a little more than 18 acres of land there four years earlier. His plan was to use the trees on his property as firewood to supplement his home heat.
He also wanted to cut down a few white pines in order to create a small orchard of cherry and apple trees. However, he stopped cutting after a neighbor learned from the Newfield code enforcement officer that the state-mandated shoreland rules meant he might not be allowed to remove the trees.
Under state law, shoreland areas consists of land within 250 feet of the normal high-water line of any great pond, river or saltwater body; within 250 feet of the upland edge of a coastal wetland; within 250 feet of the upland edge of a freshwater wetland; and within 75 feet of the high-water line of a stream.
Mike Moulton, a member of PORME from Limerick, owns about 300 acres of non-contiguous land in the towns of Newfield, Limerick, Parsonsfield and Cornish. And some of that property is located on Sokokis Lake in Limerick.
Under the new shoreland restrictions, what was once assessed and taxed as a buildable lot by the town is no longer developable.
“I just feel the state’s gone too far. The rules really got pretty strict,” he said. “These rules affect us everywhere, particularly on our Newfield property, which is near a brook.”
He said the members of PORME are posting their land in order to get the attention of state leaders and Maine residents. For the first time this year, Moulton said, he’s turned away those he has traditionally allowed access.
“When the state arbitrarily went to 250 feet, that amounted to stealing our land,” added Allan Chamberlain, who also lives in Limerick and owns about 135 acres of land in town.
“I have three or four brooks and a big meadow on that property and with these restrictions I can’t do a heck of a lot with the land,” he added. “So, if I can’t use it, nobody else can.”