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Op/Ed: Land for Maine’s Future furthers the erosion of individual property rights

By Diana George Chapin

In her March 14, 2009 Wall Street Journal column, Peggy Noonan recalled in “There’s No Pill for This Kind of Depression” the six-months’ passing since Lehman Brothers fell and the “great recession” began. With the heart-pumping drama of September 2008 replaced by the “drip-drip-drip of pink slips, foreclosures and closed stores,” Noonan began asking her perceptive colleagues what, in their view, the distress of the financial crisis had rendered.

Those she interviewed provided a range of sensible insights, but perhaps none more decisive than a powerful Wall Street authority.

“Five weeks ago, when I asked a Wall Street titan what one should do to be safe in the future, he took me aback with the concreteness of his advice and its bottom-line nature,” Noonan wrote. “Everyone should try to own a house, he said, no matter how big or small, but it has to have some land, on which you should learn how to grow things.”

Ah, to grow things. The security of land, the prospect of providing for oneself and one’s family—it’s practically hard-wired into the Yankee psyche and it is certainly an ethic handed down through generations of Maine families. Instilled in many at an early age as an article of faith, land—we were taught—is the only sound investment. Once purchased, it is to be held onto with all available might and resourcefulness.

Anyone who has earned their share of sweat equity in their land or home knows the saying “putting your blood, sweat and tears into it” is aptly earned, particularly if one’s vocation is farming, fishing or woods work.

Some would argue that whether or not one is a commercial farmer, fisherman or timber harvester, owning land free and clear is the source of self-reliance. When it comes down to it, without land there is no independence and no liberty, no practical and little financial security—and it was this freedom to which the Wall Street titan ultimately referred.

According to Maine law—as it stands at present—those who own land unencumbered by easements own from the center of the Earth to the heavens above. But with an increasing percentage of land in Maine being covered in conservation easements that travel with the land in perpetuity, and with movements afoot to place the water and the air in public trust, we are steering a course that forecasts unwell for the future of personal liberty and the ideals of freedom.

Perhaps more than any other time in American history, voters dwelling in suburban and rural areas should pay careful attention to the perceptions candidates hold toward the ownership and control of land in Maine.

In January I began investigating a range of issues concerning land conservation in Maine for The Maine Wire. For the most part I reported on the activities of land trusts and the changing nature of land ownership in Maine, from a predominantly free-enterprise ownership model to an increasingly non-for-profit, tax-exempt, board-of-directors-controlled corporate model.  The research project took me all over the state as I attended community meetings, met with selectmen, interviewed land trust directors and executives, scoured tax maps, deeds, easements and spoke with everyday citizens.

Some of the stories I encountered I reported on; there are many more story leads that warrant further examination.

Maine people I spoke with fear for private property rights if corporations increasingly hold a controlling interest in otherwise privately held land. They are seriously concerned for future generations that widespread use of conservation easements represents a fundamental shift in who controls land, who accesses land and who derives financial security from owning land.

They are concerned that conserved lands will shift the property tax burden onto family homes and people are beginning to understand that the financial security of future generations may be jeopardized when land is encumbered by easements, the economic value of those parcels deeply depressed. People can foresee the dynamics of a feudal land system emerging—with corporate trusts governing tenants who lease land and buildings, but who never build equity.

Some see the changing landscape of land ownership in Maine as very complicated. Others, like one Limington woman I interviewed, provided a more succinct view of the “conservation movement,” which often uses public funding to acquire land and whose leaders say they control 20 percent of the land in Maine: “This is socialism,” she said.

Diana George Chapin was quoted in “What is the future of Land for Maine’s Future?”, a column by Edgar Allen Beem for Down East magazine. Beem pointed to her series on land trusts in The Maine Wire and used her quotes as the only counterpoint in his long column supporting Land For Maine’s future.

“When held by a trust,” says Chapin in Beem’s column, “land is often placed in a tax classification that deeply reduces the property tax paid on the value of the land. Currently, some land trusts in Maine enjoy or are working to obtain complete property tax exemption. Municipal, school, and county bills still need to be paid, so the burden of that lost tax revenue shifts directly onto homeowners and other taxpayers.”

Some of the dialogues I witnessed in the meetings in rural and suburban places were no less than astonishing to me. In one suburban meeting hosted by a land trust, in which the goal was to highlight the potential of agriculture on the trust’s conserved land, a middle-aged, private-enterprise farmer in attendance expressed his concern for the future financial security of a young tenant farmer who leased land from the trust.

The middle-aged farmer spoke passionately of how he had to tap the equity of his family farm to fund a medical crisis he experienced years before, and he expressed his grave concern that the young tenant farmer was working hard for something he would never own or in which he would build equity. He and the young farmer escalated in their back-and-forth discussion, until the young farmer harshly and arrogantly punctuated the end of the conversation by saying that he didn’t need the older farmer to worry about his future.

The middle-aged farmer, frustrated, left the meeting and any meaningful public discussion of the issue promptly died.

I attended several meetings not sponsored by land trusts in which the local attitudes toward land were perceptible. At one meeting I listened as people discussed the topic of “landed gentry.” An animated discussion took place regarding landowners who had come by their land through inheritance or wealth and who were part of a system of “rural gentrification,” in which land was distributed—unjustly, they said—according to an ability to pay, not a desire to farm or work the land.

Their view was to change the system by squatting on land, inhabiting the “under-resourced” homes and farmland of the elderly or inhabiting foreclosed properties.

At another meeting in late spring in which some individuals were discussing taking over a foreclosed farm for the summer, talk quickly turned to local food security. One young man garnered the groups’ attention by campaigning for a variety of “support local” ideals. Then suddenly, he ended his plea with a dramatic statement.

“If you believe you have the right to put what you want in your body, from what you put in your mouth, right down to that last…” he said, motioning to his arm as if injecting himself with a lethal needle, “and that that right comes from the soil, it makes property rights go away.”

I’m not making this up.

I couldn’t get my mind to make such an incredible leap, and I pray that you can’t either. What you should know is that apparently this sentiment is not a rouge thought: heads in the room bobbed in affirmation of this statement, including the head of an individual running for the Maine House of Representatives.

Let’s face it: we don’t have a right to soil. We don’t have a right to food. We don’t have a right to farm. But we do enjoy the prerogative to stop and think.

While the national attention is diverted to big issues like the economy and healthcare, traditional values where land is concerned right here in Maine are eroding. The understanding is slipping away that private ownership and full access by the individual to their land is the foundation of the advancement of personal liberty.

While, perhaps, most people don’t believe that property rights just “go away” because people have a right to put in their body what they please, there has been over the past 30 years a decline in respect for private, free-holder ownership of land.

A collectivist ideal is being asserted over the idea of individualism, which is portrayed as selfish and which is being shamed. It seems most unwise to allow the future to unspool without taking a breather from the feverish pace of placing conservation easements over collectively large portions of Maine.

Conservationists say they control 1 out of every 5 acres in Maine. Okay. Let’s just pause here for a moment.

Do we really believe we are in a position to decide what is best for future generations until the end of time? Should land be encumbered with an easement forever? What about a more reasonable term—maybe a generation or two, 20 to 50 years? At the end of that period those who steward the land could decide to renew the easement or enjoy the flexibility to adapt to the challenges of the day.

It is quantifiable that land conservation projects increase municipal valuations and, in turn, local property taxes for everybody in town. Projects should be vetted and approved by the community and municipality within which they exist, so people affected by the tax shift have a say in the matter. The cumulative economic effect of land conservation on a community’s tax base must be considered, not just the effect of an individual project.

The burden of calculating this impact lies on the entity affecting the land in perpetuity by placing an easement upon it, and the calculations should be completely transparent and available for full public scrutiny.

Until these things are discussed in public, one thing we can do is defeat Question 3 on this year’s referendum, which seeks to further fund the Land for Maine’s Future program, and to carefully scrutinize the positions of candidates for our elected offices.

I want to believe that people wish to do the most good and least harm with their lives, and certainly we do that best when we act as conservators of the resources put in our care and when we are mindful of future generations. But what hangs in the balance right now in many rural communities is doing what’s right by the present generation as well.

Early on in my investigation my mother and I met with a prominent member of the local land trust to discuss our concerns for our farm and our economic future. The burden of property taxes has long been a dominant concern for our family. The trust seeks to conserve 10,000 contiguous acres in our town—nearly half the land base.

We expressed our concern that if the land the trust conserves through easements is placed into tax classifications like “forever wild” that deeply reduce the taxable value of the land, then farmers, those living on fixed income, the poor and working families who already have a hard time making ends meet may not be able to afford to live here anymore.  The land trust representative’s lack of empathy was shocking. The effect of the trusts’ activities on property taxes weren’t even a consideration, he told us.

An aberrant sentiment or one that is widespread, I don’t know. But when neighbors cannot respect the economic plight of those they stand shoulder to shoulder with in their community—well, there’s no pill for this kind of depression.

This is part of an ongoing series in The Maine Wire about Maine Land Trusts. Read all articles here.

Diana George Chapin is a freelance writer and a fourth-generation family farmer from Montville, Maine.

 

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