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Maine Lawmaker Vows to Protect Roadside Shrines
01/25/2013   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

It's difficult to find a stretch of road in Maine where a hastily erected cross or wreath has not marked the site of a highway death at one time or another. For the families of the deceased, the makeshift shrines tell passing drivers that someone they loved died there. But other passing motorists do not share those sentiments and some memorials have disappeared from the side of the road. Now one Maine lawmaker wants to make tampering with a private memorial a Class D crime.

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Rep. Kathleen Chase (R-Wells) said her decision to sponsor a bill to protect private roadside shrines was driven by the grief of a constituent. She said the woman's son was one of two boys who were killed in a car accident in Wells. A cross was erected on the side of the road in the boy's memory and his mother had planned to place the memorial on her son's grave.

"One day she went there and it had been stolen, she was highly upset and there was nothing she could do about it," Wells said.

Each year dozens of the roadside monuments appear in the aftermath of highway fatalities across the state. Sometimes they take the form of a simple white cross or a wreath and sometimes they start out simple and small and then expand to include piles of stuffed animals, toys, flowers or pictures. Chase said it's time to do something to honor the feelings of the families who have lost a loved one who is temporarily memorialized with a roadside shrine.

"For one year, that's all we're asking, for one year from the death, a plain simple white cross that doesn't obstruct anything that's placed at the point where their loved one passed away, it would be protected for one year," Chase said.

Chase's LD 40 is crafted to address those who are guilty of "tampering with a private memorial in a public way" and would classify such activity as a CLASS D crime, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $2,000 fine. Chase's bill goes on to exempt individuals from prosecution if they've been given written authority by the family being memorialized to remove the private memorial, if the memorial has been on site for more than a year or exceeds three feet in height. The bill's focus on roadside shrines has caught the attention of other lawmakers.

"I certainly understand the concept behind them and I empathize with the families who want to put them in there," said Sen. David Burns (R-Whiting).

A former state trooper and supervisor, Burns has seen his share of roadside memorials along Washington County's infamous Route 9 which runs from Brewer to Calais. Realizing that the memorials are apt to appear at any time, Burns said now might be the right time to explore what should and shouldn't be permitted along Maine's highways.

"Even though they're very well intended, I guess I'd like to discuss how they're put up, how long they are there for, obviously they are put within the right of way usually of the road, hopefully they're not in a place where they're going to obstruct any snow removal or anything like that, but I'd be glad to have a discussion and see where we go with this because it is important to the families," Burns said.

"We would want to be pointing out the negative impacts of memorial sites like this being established in the long-term sense," said Bob Burns, current president of the Maine chapter of the American Public Works Association and the director of public works in Gorham.

He said members of his organization deal with roadside memorials during regular highway maintenance and plan to watch how Chase's bill progresses. He said that while he understands the emotional desire for families to erect roadside shrines, the memorials can create problems for highway crews.

"In the short-term, I think everyone has seen these crop up around the state and around the country, but I'd be surprised about them being protected in a long-term sense, I think we'd want to look at that carefully," Burns said.

The roadside memorial bill has been assigned to the Legislature's Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee for review.

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