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Land trusts map future by helping municipalities with planning

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By Diana George Chapin

Maureen Hoffman has served as executive director for Sheepscot Valley Conservation Association for 15 years and is dedicated to conserving and preserving land in the Sheepscot River watershed, which extends from the “headwaters” region of Montville and Freedom to estuary area of Southport and Westport Island.

The land trust, based in Newcastle, is organized as a non-profit corporation. It solicits, receives and administers property and funds for the promotion and advancement of land conservation in areas of Lincoln, Waldo, Kennebec and Knox Counties, encompassing more than a dozen towns.

SVCA holds a controlling interest in approximately 3,500 acres of primarily forested land: 2,400 acres through conservation easements on land for which the deed is still held by private landowner; and approximately 1,100 acres of conserved land that is owned by SVCA, which includes seven public preserves in the mid-coast area, according to Hoffman.

According to the bylaws of the organization found at www.sheepscot.org, in addition to being dedicated to the preservation of open space and the conservation of wildlife, plant life, geological, scenic and historical resources, SVCA seeks to eliminate or control all forms of environmental pollution and objectionable and excessive noise and destructive alterations of the landscape.

One of the primary roles of the organization most recently has been to work with municipalities within the watershed, promoting “compatible land uses,” according to Hoffman, and facilitating land use planning in keeping with the trust’s mission to create vast tracts of open space and channel human developments into designated areas.

“We’ve been working for the past seven or eight years trying to support towns when they are going through, for instance, comprehensive planning efforts or recently the state required towns to review their shoreland zoning regulations, their forestry regulations, things like that,” Hoffman says. “We provided a common meeting ground where we would invite either someone from, say, the State Planning Office, at the state level, or other people who would know how to help towns to take on these major planning efforts that were being asked of them by the state.”

“There is also some renewed interest in living in urban areas like Portland, or even around here, towns like Damariscotta, are becoming more popular as the population in Maine ages,” Hoffman said. “That’s a good thing.”

She said SVCA would look at comprehensive plans for communities,“and then, hopefully, encourage that kind of development.”

Through the organization’s ability to produce GIS (Geographic Imaging Systems) maps, which layer multiple data groups, including natural and human-made elements of the landscape with local tax maps, Hoffman said her organization “offered to a few towns to do maps for them, so they could look at their town as a whole.”

The baseline maps were provided by the Maine Dept. of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s “Beginning with Habitat” program. The program describes itself as a collaborative of federal, state and local agencies and non-governmental organizations. The maps designate water resources and riparian habitats, high-value plant and animal habitats, and undeveloped habitat blocks.

In the headwaters region of the Sheepscot River, at the Montville town office, the GIS map produced by the SVCA hangs directly above the desk of the town’s first selectman and assessor—who also currently serves on the board of directors and as treasurer of the local land trust, Sheepscot Wellspring Land Alliance (SWLA), another corporate non-profit working in the northern part of the Sheepscot River region.

SWLA collaborates with SVCA on land-acquisition and conservation projects.

The map shows the town boundaries and the topographical lay of the land in Montville. It identifies wetlands, perennial streams, intermittent streams, public roads and private roads throughout all of Montville and through abutting portions of neighboring Liberty, Palermo, Freedom, Knox, Morrill, Searsmont and Appleton.

The map was prepared by the SVCA GIS Support Center in 2008 and displays as an overlay to the natural elements map, the individual property lines for the entire town of Montville, combining the 54 separate “tax maps” the assessors use for taxation purposes on the one GIS map.

“Many of the town officials hadn’t really seen all of the town at once before,” said Hoffman. “It can help you to visualize the way your town is developing, what kind of assets the town has. Where are the lakes, and how do the lakes all work with the rivers? The town center—where are the growth areas that would make sense?”

Might the GIS maps with individual properties delineated by municipal tax maps help land trusts target specific properties for acquisition?

“That’s something that can happen,” Hoffman said.

SWLA is one of the nine land trusts working with SVCA to regionalize land acquisition through an initiative called “The 12 Rivers Conservation Collaborative.”

“A number of land trusts in the region gathered periodically to discuss issues,” Hoffman said. “We realized that we might be able to bring more funding to the region and be able to really look at the region as a whole, instead of in our own particular watershed. We might be able to work more effectively and efficiently if we banded together in this cooperative work as 12 Rivers.”

According to Hoffman, as shown by the Beginning with Habitat baseline map, “Those un-fragmented or undeveloped blocks of land—those are what we were looking at with our focus on protecting undeveloped forested lands,” she said. “That layer was of interest to us.”

“While we have tried, as a group of land trusts, to think in the bigger picture, we were looking to see where there were large areas of unprotected land that would make sense to look at to enable those forested lands to stay undeveloped,” Hoffman said.

“It’s interesting when you start to think about land and you take away all of the municipal boundaries—we don’t identify them as in a particular place, they are that un-fragmented block,” she said.

But for some rural private property owners, the practice of viewing land without respect to municipal confines and coordinating efforts with elected officials raises some serious questions about whether or not the integrity of the democratic process is alive and well in parts of Maine.

As a controlling interest over increasing tracts of land in Maine are obtained through conservation easements held by private, non-profit corporate trusts, will property owners be left with a tax bill, a deed and little more?

This is part of 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.

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