by Christine Parrish
Free Press news story
A legislative committee unanimously concluded this week that conserved lands benefit the state overall and that Governor LePage’s claim that the state was losing millions of dollars due to land trusts not paying taxes was false.
As part of the budget deal last summer, the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry (ACF) Committee was asked to study the financial and nonfinancial aspects of conserved lands owned by nonprofit conservation organizations, including the property taxes they paid, the community benefits they offered, and their value to the state’s economy.
Maine has about 75 land trusts which, collectively, have conserved about 2.5 million acres — 85 percent of which are working forests. The largest property is 160,000 acres of commercial and multiple-use forest on the St. John River that is owned by The Nature Conservancy.
And they do pay taxes. Ninety-five percent of land trust conserved lands are on the tax rolls, about another 4 percent are subject to payments in lieu of taxes, and about 1.5 percent are tax-exempt, according to a comprehensive study submitted to the ACF committee by the Maine Land Trust Network.
The Maine Department of Tourism concluded conserved lands were important to the state’s $8.8 billion tourism industry. The Department provided data that showed Maine is attracting more families with children as visitors, a change that explains, in part, the increasing interest in hiking, camping, canoeing, kayaking and fishing. In 2016, over 34 percent of Maine visitors were interested in outdoor activities on land, another 28 percent were interested in water activities. Snowmobiling, some of which is done on conserved land, brought in $350 million in 2016.
The information sent to the committee by the administration was inaccurate and irrelevant, committee members found. LePage officials initially made an error that doubled state-owned land from about one to two million acres, then provided information that included all tax-exempt property in the state, including churches, hospitals, fraternal organizations, libraries and municipal buildings. There was no breakdown category for conservation land and no one from the administration was on hand to explain why to the committee.
“Is anyone coming down from the second floor to explain this?” asked Representative Kent Ackley of Monmouth.
“Not that I know of,” responded ACF Committee Chair Paul Davis, a Senate Republican from Sangerville.
“It’s an interesting story, but without source data, it’s just that,” said Ackley
The ACF Committee agreed the governor’s data should be set aside, then unanimously concluded that their final report would state that land trusts benefit Maine in many ways; recommend that the Legislature review current-use tax programs (Tree Growth, Open Space, Farmland, etc.) and other tax program policies relating to public access to lands with a reduced tax rate; and recommend investigating small, rural communities that seem to be negatively impacted by land that is tax-exempt for any reason, including conservation.