by Susan Sharon
MPBN news story
Conservationists say they’ve never seen anything like it. As many as two dozen working forests, working farms and outdoor recreation projects around the state could be in jeopardy even though they were approved for funding last year by the Land for Maine’s Future Program, with the advice and consent of the LePage administration. In June, the governor announced that the state would not borrow any more money until at least 2014. And he has not backed away from that position, even though just last month Maine voters authorized another $5 million land conservation bond.
One of the projects that could be derailed is the Scammon Farm in Topsham. The 144-acre farm includes a large woodlot, corn and hay fields and pasture land that is leased out to a Whitefield farmer for his dairy cows during the summer.
“I was born right here on this farm 68 years ago,” Marsha Scammon says. “And my parents were here for over 70 years. My father’s desire was to never have it developed.”
Scammon’s father left her and her husband the farm about a dozen years ago. Just a few miles from downtown Topsham, it’s one of only five farms remaining on this stretch of the Meadow Cross Road, where there are abundant signs of encroaching development.
But the Scammons remain deeply connected to their land. Douglas Scammon says they realized just how much when they retired three years ago and put a “For Sale” sign out front.
“I could have sold this piece of property — my wife and I — could have sold it in a couple of days, because we put a sign out hoping that a farmer might want it and a developer came in, bang!” he says. “We took the sign out and said, ‘No, we don’t want it houses. We want it open land. We want it to be a farm.'”
Scammon could have gotten much more than his asking price of around $400,000 if he’d sold it to a developer. The property was appraised for more than that. And as a Bath Iron Works retiree living on a fixed income, the thought of getting such a sizeable payout would seem enticing. The couple barely makes enough money leasing their pasture land to cover the cost of their yearly taxes.
But when it comes to the highest and best use of the land — keeping it in agricultural use and keeping it intact for wildlife — the Scammons are looking to conserve it with the help of a local land trust and the Land For Maine’s Future Program.
“We are really hoping that we can figure out a way to close on this project. It’s a $275,000 project with all the project costs enclosed,” says Angela Twitchell, the executive director of the Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust. She says the Scammons went through the LMF’s scoring process, got the necessary appraisals, surveys and environmental assessments and finally received an award letter from the state in July of last year.
“We were awarded $71,000 from the Land for Maine’s Future Program, so we have matching funds all ready to go, that we’re really just waiting for this project, the LMF money, to become available,” Twitchell says.
The project, like many others, includes privately-raised money and matching federal funds in an amount greater than what even the state is providing. But here’s the glitch: According to a memo from Deputy Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Commissioner Ed Meadows, there’s a gap of more than $2 million between existing funds and those allocated in the LMF Program, and no new funds are expected.
That’s because Gov. Paul LePage is uncomfortable with the state’s financial picture. His spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, says borrowing more money is not going to help, and for the foreseeable future the governor is not going to make the funding available.
“Maine’s working landscapes – they have great value. There’s no doubt about that,” Bennett says. “The Land for Maine’s Future Program is not a funding priority, given the pressing fiscal needs of the state and the availability of private funds for conservation efforts. But taxpayers must pay these bonds back with interest, and to be honest, we further bury our children with our debts, and the governor does not want to do that.”
Bennett says it may be possible for some of the projects in the pipeline to find gap financing alternatives. And ACF Commissioner Walt Whitcomb says his department is currently reviewing the projects to look for remedies so they are kept intact.
In the meantime, LMF board chair Ben Emory says the situation is frustrating.
“To have had the state make the commitments and then not carry through is unheard of,” Emory says. “It could be years before anybody trusts the state of Maine as a partner again. And the land being so important to the economy of the state — it’s just tragic, all over a very small amount of dollars at a time when interest rates have never been lower.”
Commissioner Whitcomb says he doesn’t think the situation is nearly as dire as Emory and some conservationists are suggesting. The Land for Maine’s Future Board will meet in January to figure out the next step.