By The BDN Editorial Board
Bangor Daily News editorial
At his rant-filled press conference Friday, Gov. Paul LePage said he was launching an investigation of the Land for Maine’s Future program. The governor has refused to sign off on bonds to fund projects that have already been approved by LMF, putting dozens of land conservation agreements in jeopardy.
On Monday, LePage gave a bit more detail about his investigation. Speaking after an assembly at Brunswick Junior High School, the governor said he’d heard rumors about LMF and had to look into them, according to a story by the Times Record. “The rumors,” he said, “were about land being appraised as if it were all developed, when it’s forest land. So I’m looking into it.”
This should be a pretty short investigation. The concept of “highest and best use” is a standard for appraisals. It is part of the core curriculum to become a certified appraiser in Maine. The Board of Real Estate appraisers administers the course and issues licenses.
“Regardless of size, the value of any parcel is predicated on highest and best use in the marketplace,” says PropEx, an online real estate listing service.
In other words, the value of land — and residential property, too — is based not on what the land is currently used for, but what it could be used for.
All appraisals conducted for LMF projects are public, as are all the program’s other documentation and meetings.
“Land for Maine’s Future is highly popular and transparent,” David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, said Tuesday. “It is one of the best programs in state government.”
He didn’t always feels this way. As a Republican lawmaker from Waldoboro, he was an outspoken critic of the program.
He changed his mind, he said, after seeing how the program helped clam diggers who lived in his district. Without LMF, they could have easily lost access to the flats and water where they harvested clams. Access to land and streams and ponds is also vitally important, especially to veterans, the disabled and others who can’t easily partake in a wilderness outing, Trahan said of his continuing work to get LePage to release the LMF bonds.
At the Brunswick event, LePage also said that LMF was a program for the rich. “We ask the taxpayer — which is not the rich people — to sell bonds and give it to the rich people so they can get these beautiful pieces of land conserved, and once you conserve it, you say to the poor people, ‘pay for it.’”
LMF has preserved some land that belonged to rich people, although wealthy landowners tend to make outright donations, as David Rockefeller, Sr. did last month. But, it has also preserved farmland, working waterfronts, snowmobile trails and working forests, which are not owned or used by solely rich people.
Most important, all land and easements purchased with LMF money must allow public access, so anyone — poor, rich, middle class — can use the land and waters the program has helped preserve. It should also be remembered that LMF never pays for more than half a project’s cost, so the public gets a good deal for its investment.
“If you think preserving access for clam diggers helps the rich, you are delusional,” Trahan said. “LMF land has to be open to people who can’t afford to buy land.”
LePage should not waste taxpayer dollars investigating one of the state’s most transparent programs. Instead, the person he said he’s hired to look into LMF should examine the state’s business incentive programs.