By The BDN Editorial Board
Bangor Daily News op-ed
After holding more than $11 million in voter-approved bonds for the Land for Maine’s Future program hostage for more than a year, Gov. Paul LePage relented late last year and said he would authorize the sale of the bonds. It seemed like good news for a program that LePage had handcuffed for months.
The release of the bond money meant that 30 conservation projects, already approved for funding by the Land for Maine’s Future board, could again move forward. One of those projects aimed to preserve 164 acres near the State House in Augusta.
The program’s board approved this project two years ago. Ultimately, the land on Howard Hill in Augusta is slated to become a municipal park with the help of $337,500 from Land for Maine’s Future, which is a three-decades-old, state-run land protection program. The board reaffirmed the project and funding again in October 2015.
Now, two years after Land for Maine’s Future committed its support, the program’s board — with new members appointed by LePage — has voted to slash funding for the project by more than half. Board members said they thought the appraisal for the 164 acres was too high, despite the fact that a special review panel had looked at the appraisal earlier this year. The Kennebec Land Trust already has bought the land, using a $500,000 bank loan to complete the purchase in October 2015.
This about-face and reneging on a previous commitment is an outrageous abuse of power that puts all conservation groups and other potential state business partners on notice that Maine state government is not a reliable nor honest party with which to do business.
The Howard Hill project has been a particular object of LePage’s ire about Land for Maine’s Future and state-supported land conservation in general.
Last year, the Governor’s Office of Policy and Management hired an appraiser to review the Howard Hill land appraisal that was part of the Kennebec Land Trust’s funding application to Land for Maine’s Future. The appraisal valued the land, which had been approved for a 53-lot subdivision, at $1 million.
Appraisers — based on professional standards required of them and based on standards required by the Land for Maine’s Future program — base their appraisals of land value on the principle of “highest and best use.” That means that if a land parcel has been approved for development, an appraiser judges its value based on its development potential.
The appraiser hired by the LePage administration, however, disagreed with the original assessment. “Overall, it was my opinion that valuation, report, and results are not reasonable,” Walter Bowditch, an appraiser from Waterville, wrote in his September 2015 report to the Office of Policy and Management. He did not offer a different valuation for the property. The office did not share the report with LMF until February.
The majority of board members who attended last week’s Land for Maine’s Future meeting seized on this assessment to reconsider the program’s commitment to the Howard Hill project. Five of the six board members voting to reduce the allocation to $163,500.
“Now at the eleventh hour — going back two years and starting to change the rules — opens up a precedent that is concerning to me in terms of the process we follow and fairness to all of the applicants,” said Neil Piper of Gorham, the only board member to vote against the funding reduction, according to the Portland Press Herald. “Changing the events midstream without having a real reason to do so causes me some concern.”
Piper walked out of the meeting shortly after the vote and said he was resigning from the board in protest, the Press Herald reported.
His concerns are spot on.
A program that changes the rules and reverses decisions made years earlier has no credibility. That lack of credibility will hamper future conservation efforts and, more broadly, warns those who do business with the state to be wary because the rules can change at any time.