Dozens of land trusts exert corporate control over Maine communities


*Editors Note – This is the second in a series of pieces about Maine’s Land Trusts. Read all Land Trust related coverage here.

By Diana George Chapin

Maine has a rich and well-documented history of traditional land use. Today, the land conservation movement in Maine is moving swiftly and changing the relationship between individual property owners, communities and the land.

The issues are complex, sensitive and, in some communities, even polarizing.

The question on the minds of many Maine people who live in rural communities, who own full rights to their property and who obtained the land through their own economic resourcefulness, is how corporate control of large portions of the land base in Maine through easements will affect land use and property taxation.

Maine now ranks second in the nation (after California) in acres conserved, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Land Trust Alliance, self-described as “the national convener, strategist and representative of more than 1,700 land trusts across America.”

The LTA’s 2010 Census Report revealed 88 land trusts operating in Maine, including 60 staffed groups and 16 all-volunteer groups.

Conservation easements are a tool many organizations—primarily land trusts—are using to shape the future use of land across the state and nation.  Land trusts are usually organized as private, non-profit corporations, which—as part of their mission to prevent land from future human developments and to augment ecosystems—pursue conservation easement acquisitions from private landowners, often utilizing a combination of public and private funding.

Sometimes trusts buy land outright, applying a conservation easement to the deed; other times they buy or have donated to them an easement for a privately held parcel of land.

Donated easements of privately held land can take many forms, but ultimately they provide the holding organization a certain right to use or control the real property of another without actually possessing it. Most conservation easements transfer some present or future usage rights of the landowner to the corporate trust and create an enforceable land preservation agreement between the two entities. As an encumbrance to the deed, an easement tends to significantly reduce the fair market and taxable value of the land it covers.

The sale or donation of conservation easements on the part of a private landowner to a trust is strictly voluntary, but the implications for the decision last in perpetuity: easements pass with the transfer of the deed to a property.  The terms are perpetual—forever binding all future owners of the property to the terms of the easement.

For centuries, land trusts offered individuals and organizations a mechanism to hide ownership and to provide a way of skirting the financial burdens of land ownership. Today, land trusts actively market the sale or donation of easements as a tax management tool. On the national scene, Mark Warda, in his book “Land Trusts for Privacy & Profit,” details strategies for using land trusts to keep the purchase price of land secret, and to avoid probate losses, deed transfer costs, liens and lawsuits.

A perusal of promotional documents from the late 1990s to 2005 from a number of Maine land trusts, reveals an intense marketing of easement donations as a way for landowners to obtain substantial income tax deductions and reduced property and estate taxes.  While those factors still exist today, many trusts have limited this message and asserted the environmental and “common good” benefits of conserved land.

“Land trusts are like snowflakes,” says Rob Aldrich, communications director for the Land Trust Alliance. “They’re all unique. The land trusts that are all-volunteer that are run by boards can be very effective and they can do great work at the community level. But we have noticed—and we’ve done a number of these censuses—that many times it’s the groups with the larger staff that can conserve larger parcels of land or more acres per year.”

These groups also have larger budgets. “The budgets they have are used to protect that land in perpetuity,” Aldrich said. “They have a large stewardship fund, they have a large conservation defense fund, and they have larger endowments. So some of those larger groups are more sustainable.”

“On the other hand, some of these small groups that are all-volunteer have been all-volunteer for many, many years,” he said. “They have just proven by their existence that they are themselves sustainable. It’s just that they do different things for the land trust community. The smaller groups have deep roots in the community; they know the community, they know the area, they know the landscape. They know what land the community needs. The smaller groups have that deep, intimate knowledge of their smaller communities, which is a big asset. Oftentimes the larger groups have the capacity to save more land.”

But as time goes on, smaller land trusts may not be able to raise funds to meet stewardship and administrative responsibilities associated with the land they control.

“We’re seeing a lot of land trusts that are merging with each other,” Aldrich said. “They are just finding that banding together and having administrative costs borne by a larger organization allows people to be freed up to do the other work of the organization, which is the community outreach and things like that—the things that help organizations to be stronger.”

“The best, most successful mergers are ones that really only happen when both trusts want to merge,” Aldrich said. “There has actually been a case where, I think, seven organizations merged into one. They all merge because they have the same interests.”

Concerns have been raised by the property-rights community in objection to the removal of landowner rights. How does Aldrich respond to their concerns?

“Frankly, I’m a little bit puzzled,” he said. “The whole nice thing about what land trusts do is that its private money—sometimes there’s government money involved—but it’s private organizations working with private landowners working to save land for the community.

“These are voluntary agreements, they are private agreements,” Aldrich said. “A person has a right to do with their land what they as they want. If they want to build a shopping mall on it, well, they have that right. If they want to protect it so there is no shopping mall on it, they can do that.

“These property rights people seem to have an agenda, but I’m not sure what that is,” Aldrich said. “We have tried in the past to talk to property rights folks, but that doesn’t seem to get us anywhere.”

This is the second in an ongoing series about Maine Land Trusts – Read all articles here.

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

About Steve Robinson

Steve Robinson is the former editor of The Maine Wire and currently the executive producer of the Kirk Minihane Show. Follow him on Twitter @BigSteve207.