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EXCLUSIVE: Maine legislators push back when LePage tries again to undermine land conservation
EXCLUSIVE: Maine legislators push back when LePage tries again to undermine land conservation

On Thursday, the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry (ACF) Committee of the Maine Legislature held its first meeting to study conserved lands owned by nonprofit organizations. The meeting ended with legislators pointing out that the LePage Administration is attempting to rig the system “to prove their point” that conservation lands are bad news.

In late June, Gov. Paul LePage threatened legislators with a government shutdown if they ignored his efforts to remove property tax exemptions for land trusts that hold tracts of forest, farmland and other lands for conservation and public recreation. In response, lawmakers inserted into the state’s biennial budget a directive calling for a legislative study of conserved Maine lands owned by nonprofits. The committee’s report is due next February.

At the legislative meeting in Augusta today, informative presentations were given by several land trust representatives and by the Maine Tourism Association. However, committee members of all parties were visibly annoyed at the LePage Administration for not sending anyone to the meeting and for creating a conserved land registry process designed to fail.

For years, Maine has had a registry of conservation easements. But for the first time, the State is compiling a registry of conservation lands owned in fee by nonprofits. On September 25, the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry (DACF) sent a letter telling land trusts to provide information online by November 30 about all conserved lands they own.

Representatives of several groups told the ACF Committee that the department’s online registry is a muddle. Bill Williams, representing Maine Woodland Owners, said the template created by the DACF is confusing and duplicative. It will be “a challenge” to provide the requested data, Williams said. For example, he pointed out that it is “unreasonable” to ask four different ways where each parcel is located.

Similarly, Tim Glidden, president of Maine Coast Heritage Trust, which coordinates the Maine Land Trust Network, wrote to DACF on October 11 to emphasize that “the current version of the fee lands section of the registry, unveiled on October 1, is unworkable in it current format.”

Maine land trusts have an extensive history of good land management and cooperation with state agencies and local governments. In his letter, Glidden said MCHT is “sincerely interested in working with the Department.” However, it was clear to everyone at the legislative meeting that LePage is not interested in working with them. The LePage Administration refused to even consult with anyone in the nonprofit community before creating the byzantine online registry.

In exasperation, the ACF Committee agreed to ask the Legislative Council to allow an after-deadline bill into the upcoming special legislative session on October 23 to clarify what data should be compiled in the conserved lands registry.

Most of the polite discussion at the meeting danced around the underlying issue that was clearly festering. The LePage Administration, driven by an anti-conservation ideology, is trying to use the conserved lands registry as a weapon against conservation. A letter sent on Tuesday by LePage to the committee said “preservation of land and its removal from the local tax rolls is concerning because it creates a tax shift that places an unfair burden on Maine citizens.” In truth, 94.5 percent of properties conserved by Maine land trusts are already on the tax rolls. Nearly all the rest make payments in lieu of taxes.

The frustration about LePage’s unspoken agenda, which is another of his witch hunts against land conservation (except when it benefits his supporters), boiled to the surface briefly when one legislator, Rep. Thomas Skolfield, a Republican, said it was a “foregone conclusion by this Administration” that land protected by nonprofits is bad, despite all evidence to the contrary. Skolfield said he was offended by the LePage Administration’s efforts to undercut the conserved lands registry. Several other committee members concurred.

The stage is set for another confrontation between the Maine Legislature and Gov. LePage over his latest assault to once again undermine conservation efforts in the state.

Posted on Thursday, October 12, 2017 (Archive on Thursday, November 2, 2017)
Posted by Jym St. Pierre   Contributed by Jym St. Pierre

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