Landowners seek to ‘retire’ Saco River Corridor Commission

By Lisa Williams Ackley
Staff Writer

FRYEBURG — Three prominent landowners in this community have written letters to the Governor’s Council on Red Tape seeking to abolish the Saco River Corridor Commission, saying it is just another layer of regulatory bureaucracy that is “burdensome, repetitive and expensive.”

They are seeking the support of the Fryeburg Board of Selectmen in their effort to dismantle the Saco River Corridor Commission.

However, the executive director of the Saco River Corridor Commission told selectmen here last week that the organization acts as a necessary safety net, when it comes to enforcing strict shoreland regulations along the river that is “one of only two viable water sources in western Maine,” the other being Sebago Lake.

Earlier in March, Elbridge Russell attended the selectmen’s meeting to present a letter he had written to the Governor’s Council on Red Tape — which is looking in to alleviating some of the regulatory hurdles businesses encounter at the state level. Russell also presented letters to the Council written by Green Thumb Farms President Don Thibodeau, and Howard K. Dearborn, an inventor and founder of Dearborn Precision Tubular Products, Inc.

All three letters urge the state to abolish the Saco River Corridor Commission (SRCC).

The 20 towns within the Saco River watershed that are under the jurisdiction of the SRCC and have representatives and alternate members serving as commissioners are: Acton, Baldwin, Biddeford, Brownfield, Buxton, Cornish, Dayton, Denmark, Fryeburg, Hiram, Hollis, Limerick, Limington, Newfield, Parsonsfield, Porter, Saco, Shapleigh, Standish and Waterboro.

Russell pointed out that the SRCC was established by the Legislature in 1973 and “was a mandated 10 Year Act to protect water quality and manage floods and was supposed to be sunsetted” in 2003.

“I am writing this letter to hopefully Retire the Saco River Corridor Commission which I feel is repetitious, expensive and punitive,” Russell stated. “The SRCC is now an expensive, redundant regulatory commission and should be disbanded.”

Thibodeau’s letter spoke about problems he encountered when developing a subdivision bordering the Saco River in which he had to gain approval from the Town of Fryeburg, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and the SRCC.

“This process was very redundant and wasteful, in terms time and money,” Thibodeau said, in his letter to the Governor’s Council on Red Tape. “The additional regulations of the SRCC are just unnecessary duplications of the DEP standards that already exist. Abolishing the SRCC would not affect the standards and laws set by the Town of Fryeburg and the DEP.”

“I have had to get permits from the Saco River Corridor Commission in the past,” wrote Dearborn, to the Governor’s Council on Red Tape. “The application and review were more complicated than those of both the town and the DEP…I feel the Saco River Corridor Commission is one regulatory agency that should be eliminated. It has outlived its usefulness.”

Russell also said he had contacted the 20 municipalities within the SRCC’s jurisdiction and spoken with those communities’ code enforcement officers and planners. Of the responses concerning the SRCC, 17 towns “were negative to neutral” in their responses and three towns offered positive comments,” he said.

The other side

Dennis Finn, executive director of the Saco River Corridor Commission, said March 31, “The Commission works in several areas — regulatory (mandates) are just part of it. We also perform water quality testing, conservation group outreach and school outreach.”

Referring to Russell’s appearance before the board of selectmen on March 17, Finn said last week, “Quite a bit of the information you did hear was incorrect.”

Finn stated that the SRCC can often impose stricter requirements in shoreland and floodplain areas. He cited a situation that occurred years ago in Fryeburg where manure had flowed in to a brook that is a tributary to the Saco River. Finn said “the E. coli ratings were off the charts” and the first thing he did was notify the town’s health officer and the town closed off the public beach. Finn said the DEP said the violation was occurring outside of their setback requirements for rivers and the “Department of Agriculture gave them 60 days” to take care of the problem. However, the oversight by the SRCC ensured that the violation was taken care of as quickly as it could be.

Selectman Ed Wilkey told Finn he feels it is important to hear from both sides — Russell and Finn.

“Elbridge (Russell) only presented (letters) from three (Saco River) landowners, and we know there are a lot more — that was not representative, in our minds, at all,” Selectman Rick Eastman said.

Wilkey asked Finn, “Did (the three letters) go to other towns?”

Finn replied, saying, “Anonymous calls were made to code enforcement officers asking, ‘What do you think of the SRCC? Are they doing their job or not?’”

“The code enforcement officers I talked to said, ‘We’re glad.’ We make their job easier,” added Finn.

Strictest regulations that apply

“One of the comments made (at the March 17 selectmen’s meeting) was the SRCC subordinates the towns and has the final say,” said Finn. “That’s not true. I go through all the standards, and we use the toughest regulation that applies, typically.”

“The Saco River is tapped in to by seven communities — Biddeford and Saco being the big ones,” Finn said. “By 2025, I predict a lot of towns will be tapped in to the Saco River (for municipal purposes).”

Speaking as a private citizen, Chief of Police Phil Weymouth, a Fryeburg resident, said, “We need to set a standard — policies and procedures — I think Fryeburg needs to step up and say, ‘We have 15 miles of this (Saco) River in our town and we need to set standards.’…We could really change the bar in this town of what we want to do with the Saco River, because it is beautiful.”

Speaking on behalf of The Nature Conservancy, Stefan Jackson said, “As a landowner (on the Saco River), we endorse the Saco River Corridor Commission. What the SRCC does is vital to what, I feel, we’ve all grown accustomed to on the Saco River. There is no other river in Maine with a Corridor Commission.  We feel it is no accident why the Saco River has the high quality of water that it does. It’s no accident. It has to do, specifically, with those SRCC (water quality) requirements. We’re in strong support of the Corridor Commission and its continuation.”

Eric Root, Fryeburg’s representative on the Saco River Corridor Commission told the selectmen he believes in the mission of the SRCC.

“What is a threat (to the Saco River) is the incremental use,” Root stated. “We have to decide what’s the value in the River we’re protecting…Municipalities should want that kind of organization and people (appointed representatives) like me doing that job.”

Finn said the SRCC has handled a total of 37 applications from Fryeburg, in 38 years.

“Altogether, we’re spending $30,000 per year for water quality testing,” said Finn. “The Saco River is a huge tourist attraction, and if that water quality is not what it should be, that’s a big hit to Fryeburg.”

“We really are doing a lot of good work,” said Michelle Broyer, Conservation and Education Coordinator for the Saco River Recreational Council, and who annually heads up the Swift and Saco River Clean Up. “That’s why we have such a great river. Be proud of it. Be part of it, and come to the (Saco River Recreation Council) meetings (at 8 a.m. every Tuesday, beginning in July) and participate.”

The selectmen took no action March 31, on Russell’s request for a letter of support to the Governor’s Council on Red Tape to abolish the Saco River Corridor Commission.

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