ELLSWORTH — The Hancock County Commissioners dipped a toe in the waters of land use protection for the unorganized territories and took it back out.
But not before rehashing at a Feb. 22 board meeting what transpired at a Feb. 7 public hearing for the proposed water protection ordinance for the unorganized territories.
Hancock County Commissioner Bill Clark described the proceedings as a “fiasco.”
Meanwhile, Commission Chairman Antonio Blasi, who introduced the proposed ordinance, described the process as “beneficial.”
Nonetheless, the commissioners agreed unanimously at the Feb. 22 meeting that the proposed measure should not be pursued.
The proposed ordinance would have, supporters said, protected water by prohibiting construction of an East-West highway in the unorganized territories.
The ordinance, considered a “rights-based ordinance” instead of a land-use ordinance, was modeled after one that the town of Sangerville in western Maine has adopted.
The board took several comments from the public, which ranged from support to ire, on Feb. 7.
Those in favor are residents worried about the safety of Maine’s water.
Meanwhile, foresters and large unorganized territories landowners said the ordinance violated both the Maine and the U.S. constitutions and that the ordinance is unlawful because Maine’s Land Use Planning Commission already regulates the unorganized territories.
Back to the discussion on Feb. 22, Blasi took the lead in putting the proposal to bed.
“I’m going to venture there is no authority for us to adopt or take any action on the ordinance,” Blasi said.
“During the public hearing process, I will say the commissioners learned many things,” Blasi said, including “how much concern there was about protecting groundwater quality and concern about any manifestation,” of an East-West highway.”
Also, “some people learned the East-West corridor was not one entity but any entity that met the description in the ordinance,” Blasi said.
Blasi said he also realized by listening to citizens that “they didn’t feel the protection by the state government was adequate for the unorganized territories.”
“I think it was a beneficial process,” Blasi said.
Commissioner John Wombacher concurred.
“I think it was a worthwhile discussion for sure,” Wombacher said. “I personally got a lot out of reading the testimonies of people.”
“I think there’s a place for us to look at it and see as a commission what we can do to ensure water quality and peoples’ concern for the environment,” Wombacher said. “I’m not ready to say today where that can be. A lot of people who submitted on this were my constituents. It’s important to me that they are heard.”
Commissioner Bill Clark opposed the proposed ordinance from the beginning — back to at least December of 2017 when District Attorney Matt Foster urged the board to get input from a land use attorney before proceeding.
“Sitting here, I feel I could be very critical of this entire process we went through,” Clark said.
“I respect the intentions of the people who supported this ordinance, but I think we did a disservice to that group by taking the actions we took and leaving them with the sense that this board had authority to enact an ordinance of this type,” Clark said.
“In December of 2017, Matt [DA Foster] told us to have this looked at by a professional land use attorney,” Clark said. “We should have gotten a legal opinion. We wouldn’t have left all those people with hopes we’re going to dash today.”
The board “wouldn’t have infuriated landowners” who own hundreds of thousands of acres in the unorganized territories or risked the public’s right to recreate on those private lands.
“I think it’s been a colossal fiasco and its unfortunate it occurred,” Clark said. “I hope today we enact a motion to put this to bed.”
The suggestion for a motion brought more discussion.
Blasi suggested informing the unorganized territories residents about the process for forming a water district amongst themselves.
“Then their hopes would not be forever dashed — they could at least bring themselves together and pursue” groundwater protections as a watershed district, Blasi said.
The board also could draft an ordinance allowable under the law using a statute that says the commissioners have the authority to “preserve and protect county roads,” the chairman suggested.
“I don’t want to leave the public hopeless,” Blasi said. “My impression is they are, at this point, very concerned about their water quality.”
Wombacher said the “subject of the corridor is huge. I will not vote to support any corridor in Hancock County.”
Clark told his fellow commissioners that they could have “strong opinions.”
“I’m cautioning both of you not to use your positions on this board to advance your personal agendas,” Clark said. “I think the message today is we’re abandoning all efforts to move forward with this ordinance.”
Blasi said he would still like to send out a mailing to the UT residents.
County Administrator Scott Adkins questioned that idea.
Adkins said the county sent 500 letters the last time, informing unorganized territories residents about the public hearing for the ordinance and there was “very little UT response.”
The only response was from citizens and businesses who own large tracts of land in the unorganized territories.
Wombacher said residents can probably solicit advice through environmental groups instead of the commission.
“That’s good advice,” Wombacher said.