By Sandy George, Montville
The inspiration for offering this opinion was a personal e-mail sent to me by John Piotti, executive director of Maine Farmland Trust, referencing his “Cedar and Pearl” column of March 6, Taxes, Conservation Easements, Farms and Other Thoughts of Spring.
In his column, Mr. Piotti reduces the response of sitting selectman to property tax increases as a simple complaint about “others.” Of the many selectmen I have met across the State of Maine during the past 46 years, very few are uncaring about their citizens. Recently, one very frugal 1st Selectman from Waldo County put it best: “ We are expected to raise taxes on people’s homes to cover the fiscal irresponsibility of the school and state, but, how are the elderly—in their 70’s and 80’s—going to earn more income to pay? They can’t!”
Mr. Piotti is correct in his assessment of hearing more complaints about non-profits and conservation initiatives. There is actually more and more documentation surfacing to substantiate that there is indeed a shift in tax burden directly related to aggressive conservation activities particularly in small rural towns with a limited tax base. The analysis of cost of services related to current use taxation cannot be compared as equally applied to individuals and to non-profit corporations for two very obvious reasons. First, the individual is a finite entity; the non-profit corporation is a perpetual entity. Second, the individual generally has paid taxes on all income generated that is used to invest in private land; the non-profit corporation is income tax exempt and very often seeks public funds for acquisition projects.
Mr. Piotti’s characterization of the view of conservation easements increasing the valuations of adjacent properties as “misguided and false” is not entirely accurate. Privacy is the most expensive commodity on the planet; property adjacent to non-developable property thereby becomes more valuable in the marketplace. Since real estate is assessed at market value, there is a shift in tax burden to neighboring property when easements to prohibit development occur. Over time, in aggregate, conservation easements do indeed drive up property values creating a preservation pressure on small communities.
Mr.Piotti’s further characterization of those of us with differing perspectives as “not fully informed,” and members of the argumentative, “facts be damned” crowd, is a testament to his attitude of arrogant pretention that those who have worked to acquire property, worked to pay taxes on their income, as well as their acquired property, do not possess the where-with-all to properly evaluate the beneficial impact of non-profit corporations on our daily lives.
On January 25 of this year I agreed, along with Mr. Piotti and others, to work together to develop a summit with land trusts, farm businesses, municipalities and others to discuss the impacts of land trust activities on rural Maine individuals and communities. We agreed to begin a dialog to answer the question many are asking across rural Maine: how is it possible to move 20% or more of Maine’s natural resource base from private ownership to the control of non-profit corporations and not have an economic impact on individuals, infrastructure and communities?
Mr. Piotti is an employee of Maine Farmland Trust. According to the IRS Form 990 filed by the tax exempt corporation for the fiscal year 2011, Mr. Piotti’s compensation exceeded six figures; total assets of the corporation were in excess of $13 million (including an art collection valued at $289,000). Maine Farmland Trust is only one of 88 land trusts operating in Maine with the common mission of “protecting and preserving” land.
By contrast, municipal officials, taxpayers and small business owners (including privately owned farms) are trying to evaluate the impact that this enormous collaborative effort of “protecting and preserving” Maine’s natural resource base is having on their own personal lives, at their own personal expense. They have just embarked on a journey called Education—the distance between question and answer.
If there is any misunderstanding clouding this issue, it is on the part of the preservationists who fail to understand the sacred bond between the land and those who work the land.
Sandy George, Montville, is a Maine farmer whose family has tilled New England ground since 1638. She served as president of the Maine Farm Bureau from 1996 – 2001.