By Tom Doak  

     There are at least 1,850 bills this year. As usual, the pace of the Legislature speeds up the closer we get to the end of the session, though progress has seemed slower than usual. Statutory adjournment is June 19, but it’s not uncommon for a session to be extended.  I mentioned last month there were several ATV bills, with LD 1109 the most important. Many issues in that bill will be addressed by the ATV Task Force established by the Governor. LD 1109, however, did address two important areas:  The definition of an ATV was amended (new language in italics) to read: “All-terrain vehicle or ATV means a motor-driven, off-road, recreational vehicle, which was originally designed by the manufacturer for and capable of cross-country travel.” This change makes it clear an automobile or truck cannot be registered as an ATV. A second provision clarifies that a motor vehicle may not operate on an ATV trail unless that trail is a gravel road where the landowner has authorized vehicle use. These two changes address a significant problem of oversized vehicles. The bill awaits final votes, but will certainly pass.

     We brought LD 1415 forward this session to address significant issues regarding old roads. We’re grateful to Rep. Catherine Nadeau (D-Winslow), the lead sponsor. As it now stands, any road without municipal maintenance for 30 years is considered abandoned, with no public notice or appeal process. Nor is a filing or permanent record required, so the actual date of abandonment is uncertain, as is the road segment involved. When abandonment was created in 1975, the purpose was to eliminate long forgotten roads now filled with trees. But the statute remains in force, adding to the confusion about old roads.

     In legislation we initiated which was enacted in 2016, the Legislature asked municipalities to, by 2018, identify the status of old roads, and those they’ve stopped maintaining, but which still carry a public easement. It was designed to help eliminate confusion. Unfortunately, not a single municipality complied. This prompted us to bring forward LD 1415 this session.   Eliminating abandonment, while retaining road discontinuance – which has a clear public process, and is recorded at the registry of deeds, would help a great deal. These issues are complicated, and there was a second roads bill, too. Ultimately, the committee decided to carry over our bill to next year.

     LD 1150, “An Act to Amend the Maine Tree Growth Tax Law to Encourage Public Access,” would require all lands enrolled in the Tree Growth Tax Law program be open for all uses by the public. It remains alive, for now. As I mentioned last month, the bill was prompted by  northern Maine ATV club’s efforts to convince a landowner in Tree Growth to allow a 780-foot ATV trail section; the landowner refused. If enacted, this would be an extraordinary change. None of the more than 10,000 landowners now enrolled did so with a public access requirement. Theoretically, as this bill proposes, the state could change the rules retroactively.

     It’s highly unlikely this bill will pass, though as I write in mid-May, it hasn’t been voted on. If there’s any hint this could get support, we’ll alert all members (and others in Tree Growth) asking you to contact legislators. I know some members have already done so, since I’ve heard from legislators that they’ve received calls. If you are in Tree Growth, it’s always helpful to remind your legislators of the importance of the law, and the need to preserve it.

     All woodland owners of more than 500 acres of commercial forestland currently pay a special annual tax in addition to other property taxes, amounting to 40% of the cost of forest fire protection in the Maine Forest Service budget. Our land trust properties are subject to this tax. LD 268 would provide landowners a 100% credit against the tax if harvesting and trucking is performed by companies whose employees are at least 75% U.S. residents. Whether the credit would apply to the entire property, only the parcel harvested, or total acreage harvested annually is unclear. Legal opinions say the bill would violate the federal Constitution. The bill will likely pass, but would need to be funded to be enacted, something not decided until the session’s final days.

     There are several other bills related to logging and trucking, many dealing with American vs. foreign workers. I’ll report on those next month.

Posted in: Legislation
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