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Op-Ed: "Land trust" movement needs full disclosure, transparency

There are dozens of different land trusts in Maine

by Sandy George

In response to the recent Bangor Daily News editorial Conservation Priorities, I would like to offer a third dimension to the discussion.  The paper addressed the potential lack of funding for the Land for Maine’s Future program and the Governor’s dedication to a balanced budget. What the paper failed to address is the impact of aggressive preservation on rural communities.

Maine people clearly understand the value of conserving land.  Our farmers and woodsmen have made it their life’s work. According to the 2010 Census of Land Conservation undertaken by the Washington, D.C. based Land Trust Alliance, there are currently 1.8 million acres of Maine’s natural resource base “protected,” or 1.4 acres for every individual that resides here.  Maine is the most preserved state east of California.

For the past thirty years, preservationists have aggressively pursued land acquisition–sometimes at the expense of the taxpayer; sometimes with the support of private funding.  The $126 million borrowed by Maine taxpayers, to be repaid by future generations, has been used to acquire 530,000 acres of the total 1.8 million, or roughly 30%.  The remaining 70% was acquired through collaborative efforts with Maine’s land trust community.

There are 88 land trusts in Maine employing 433 people; the trusts control the lion’s share of the 1.8 million acres of preserved land either through easements or by outright ownership. Land trusts are described as non-profits; that is, they are tax-exempt perpetual legal structures.  Land trusts are corporate in nature, income tax-exempt, and extremely proficient at lobbying government.  Land trusts are extremely effective at raising tax exempt capital; public solicitation for financial support is widely promoted and used as a tax management tool by private donors.

The Land Trust Alliance uses the analogy that land trusts are like snowflakes—each one is unique.  I believe, in Maine, that analogy is incorrect; I believe that in Maine, land trusts are inseparable because of their collaborative efforts.  Land trusts lobby collectively; share revenue and assets through grants and loans with other land trusts and other non-profit entities; and Maine land trusts are essentially fighting the private market for land.

If the Maine land trust movement were named Cargill or Monsanto, many Mainers would be outraged.

But it’s called the Land Trust Community.

As an increasing portion of Maine’s natural resource base is placed under the control of the land trust community, rural communities are experiencing a preservation pressure that has measurable and significant economic impacts on rural Maine families.

As perpetual entities, land trusts qualify for property tax classifications that can significantly reduce the assessed value of trust land. Since municipal budgets still have obligations for schools, roads, corrections, etc., the tax burden shifts to individual taxpayers.  Is it fair for the land trust community to ask Maine residents to add to their increasing burden of high property taxation?

Land trust control of the land is in stark contrast to traditional private, individual ownership.  The trust ultimately makes land use decisions either by the boards of directors or stewards employed by the trust.  Permanently stripping rights from land is a poor model for communities.  Development rights can include mineral, water, air and carbon exchange values.  Without full access to the potential the land holds, individuals and communities can face unforeseen consequences.

The greater community of rural Maine needs to assess and evaluate the land trust community’s aggressive acquisition posture and its collaborative effort plans; local communities need to analyze the fiscal impact that preservation pressure is having on their budgets; Maine’s land trust community needs to respect the individual right to own private property.

In my opinion, before the taxpayers of Maine subject future generations to more debt to acquire more land for preservation, they deserve full disclosure of the land trust movement:  corporate assets, corporate acquisition goals, capital transfers among and between the corporations, funding sources, and most importantly, a snapshot of the big picture thirty years from today.

The land trust community needs to quantify their perceived problem with private ownership of land in Maine and articulate their proposed solution.  We need public forums on the back roads of Maine where the people being affected live.  Land trust activities need to be thoroughly vetted at the local level.

The people of rural Maine deserve that honesty.

Sandy George is fourth-generation Maine farmer from Montville, who has farmed on the same road in Montville for 45 years.