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Should taxpayer debt fund Land for Maine’s Future?

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Maine is second only to California in conserved land

By Diana George Chapin

According to the 2010 National Land Trust Census Report produced by the Land Trust Alliance in Washington, D.C., nearly 2 million acres of land in Maine is preserved from development, placing Maine second in the nation after California in numbers of acres encumbered in perpetuity with conservation easements.

This represents an 8% increase in acres conserved since 2005.

Bond sales, which fund the Land for Maine’s Future (LMF) program, likely contributed to the rapid increase, providing money for the state, municipalities and land trusts to purchase ownership interest in land or conservation easements over land held by private owners.

While conservationists and preservationist herald LMF as a means to obtain land of public significance and for public access, individual private property owners and taxpayers express concerns about the property tax implications of increasing acreage in rural towns under conservation easement.

They worry that increasing public lands and depressing the economic value of land through conservation easements will shift an unsustainable burden of property taxes onto homeowners, farmers, woodlot owners and small businesses.

The LMF application process contains no mechanism for evaluating the local tax implications for lands held in trust in perpetuity and, in turn, no method of evaluating what might be economically sustainable for local individuals and communities.

Chart from www.landtrustalliance.org.

According to Dan Burke, assistant to the commissioner of the Maine Department of Conservation, LMF has been funded to date through bond sales, but there is no restriction on the source of revenue that may fund the program.

Since 1997, $91.2 million in LMF funds have been approved by Mainers. As of fiscal year 2012, $83.8 million in bonds have been issued. Barbara Raths, deputy treasurer of Maine, reports that nearly $12.7 million has been paid in interest on the general obligation, income-tax-exempt bonds as of July 15, 2012.

According to the Maine Department of Conservation’s website, the Land for Maine’s Future Program is the State of Maine’s primary vehicle for acquiring public lands. Distribution of the funds is overseen by a board of directors.

“The composition of the board is set legislatively,” Burke said. “As of August 30, with the merger of the Departments of Agriculture and Conservation, the board will consist of six private citizens and three permanent members. The permanent members include the commissioner of Marine Resources, the commissioner of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, and the commissioner of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.

“The private citizens are appointed by the governor, subject to confirmation by the Legislature,” Burke said. “Those private citizens are selected for their knowledge of Maine’s natural resources and their demonstrated commitment to land conservation.”

According to the 2011 Biennial Report to the Joint Standing Committee on Agriculture, Conservation & Forestry presented in February of 2011, the LMF program has already conserved over a half-million acres (approximately 55% through conservation easements and 45% through fee simple ownership).

Waterfront properties and projects, recreational trails along railroad corridors and working farms have been funded through LMF.

With over 450 conservation transactions completed and 300 projects funded statewide since 1987, there are LMF-funded projects throughout all of Maine’s 16 counties.

From 1987 to 1999, LMF funds were used for lands or conservation easements on lands of statewide significance. But after 1999, changes in statute and policy shifted the focus of LMF. Those changes were advised to the legislature by a committee formed under the direction of then-governor Angus King.

Chart from www.landtrustalliance.org

A January 2004 report was prepared by The New England Environmental Finance Center in collaboration with the Edmund Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine and the Margaret Chase Smith Center for Public Policy at the University of Maine. The report stated: “With the exhaustion of the proceeds from the 1987 bond issue, Governor Angus King, Jr. in early 1996 created the Land Acquisition Priorities Advisory Committee (LAPAC) to help shape future land acquisition and protection initiatives in Maine. Among other things, the Governor asked the Committee to identify the types of land and interests in land to be acquired by public and private conservation agencies; to set state and regional goals for acquisition; and to recommend one or more funding sources for acquisition.”

According to the final report of Governor King’s Land Acquisition Priorities Advisory Committee, (LAPAC) members of the committee included, among others, employees or representatives of The Nature Conservancy, Maine Audubon Society, Maine State Planning Office, Maine Coast Heritage Trust and The University of Maine.

Informational presentations to the committee were provided by representatives from New York Department of Environmental Conservation; the Appalachian Mountain Club; RESTORE: The North Woods; the Vermont-based Trust for Public Land; and others.

The 1997 report notes, “The Committee began its work in October, 1996 and held a total of fourteen meetings, as well as two rounds of public comment sessions. From the onset, the Committee agreed to operate on a consensus basis.”

“Currently, the Land for Maine’s Future Program can only expend funds on the acquisition of land that is of ‘state significance’,” the 27-page committee report says. “Consequently, there is no state funding available for conservation acquisitions that may be of great local or regional importance, but are not of state significance. The committee views this as a serious deficiency that can be remedied by providing matching grants to localities through LMF to acquire lands of local or regional importance. A number of the committee’s land acquisition priorities, for example farmland, are best addressed through local acquisition efforts.

“While municipalities would be the preferred recipient of these matching grants, the program should allow for other qualified recipients, specifically local land trusts, in those cases where there are compelling reasons that the municipality not be directly involved,” the report LAPAC states  “It is anticipated that local land trusts would often work in partnership with municipalities to develop acquisition projects, raise matching funds and manage properties. Management of lands acquired under this program would be a local, not a state, responsibility.”

LAPAC recommended doubling of conservation lands in Maine by the year 2020.

The LMF website corroborates with the LAPAC report: “Through the use of matching funds, the program encourages partnerships with local, regional and statewide conservation organizations, as well as state and federal agencies . . . ownership and management of the properties can include partnerships with local groups including municipalities and private land trusts. The State holds lands of statewide significance; towns and land trusts may hold properties of local and regional significance.”

Today, when evaluating applications for funding, the LMF board gives a preference to acquisitions that achieve benefits for multiple towns and that address regional conservation, including public recreational access, wildlife, open space and farmland. Land trusts across Maine report a correlating shift in their focus from local to regional, in an effort to win LMF funds and also to attract funders from outside of our state.

According to LMF statue, approval by the elected municipal or county officials is required when more than 1% of a municipality’s or unorganized territory’s state valuation is considered for acquisition under a bond issue. Yet there is no mechanism for evaluation of the cumulative effect of LMF funds on a community or region, should multiple projects be funded by LMF over time.

As land trusts regionalize and accelerate their acquisition efforts, Maine people are beginning to question whether amassing more taxpayer debt to fund Land for Maine’s Future program is in their best long-term interest.

 

The next meeting of the LMF board is scheduled for September 11, 2012 at the Maine Forest Service Bolton Hill Facility, off Route 3 in Augusta.  In November, Maine voters will be presented with a $5 million bond referendum question regarding LMF.  Full text of the law can be found at http://www.mainelegislature.org/legis/bills/bills_125th/chapters/PUBLIC696.asp

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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