Skowhegan resident voices his concerns: Portland (ME) Morning Sentinel, 2/17/06

By Susan M Cover

Skowhegan resident Hank Clark told lawmakers Thursday the state didn't notify him or his neighbors that their homes were in the path of a proposed downtown bypass.

It was only after a town selectman called that he found out about the new proposal.

"This is a horror story," he told members of the Judiciary Committee. "The previous path of the bypass had been accepted."

Clark was referring to a state Department of Transportation plan for a new link between U.S. Route 2 and U.S. Route 201, just southeast of town, that would help alleviate traffic congestion in downtown Skowhegan.

Clark, who said he was representing 30 Skowhegan-area residents, testified in support of two bills that would strengthen the state's eminent-domain laws.

One bill, sponsored by Rep. Deborah Pelletier-Simpson, D-Auburn, prohibits the use of eminent domain authority for private retail, office, commercial, industrial or residential development.

Simpson said she sponsored the bill after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a Connecticut case that it was permissible for government to take private land for use by a private developer as long as it benefitted the greater public good.

Simpson said in its ruling, the court gave states permission to adopt tougher standards.

That's what she wants Maine to do.

"We shouldn't have to worry that Wal-Mart has its eye on our land," she said.

The other bill, sponsored by Rep. Barbara Merrill, an Appleton independent, requires any political subdivision with eminent-domain power to make sure it is "absolutely necessary" to take the land and that it takes the "minimum amount necessary."

But the state Department of Transportation opposed the bills, saying they would hamper its ability to fix roads and bridges in emergency situations.

"We only take what we consider is absolutely necessary," said Toni Kemmerle, real estate attorney for the transportation department. "We have no desire to take more land than we need."

Kemmerle said the state also must abide by federal regulations and does the best it can to identify the footprint of what's necessary to take in order to complete a project.

And Greg Nadeau, a transportation department spokesman, said the Skowhegan project is in the preliminary stages and that there will be plenty of time for additional public feedback.

At least two lawmakers on the committee said they were concerned that the transportation department believes it has absolute power to take land.

And another lawmaker said he believes the public doesn't have the power to fight back against the government when it wants to take land.

"Most people whose properties were taken didn't have the means to fight the state," said Rep. Charles Crosby, D-Topsham. "The odds were so stacked against the property owner, it was an insurmountable task that the project could be questioned."

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