by Christine Parrish
Free Press news story
“I think LMF can survive, but it will take more than the governor leaving. The damage is done. Trust in the LMF process is broken,” said Piper. ”
Several people have raised questions about the legality of the procedures at the Land for Maine’s Future (LMF) board meeting on October 25. No public comment was allowed before the LMF board voted to slash funding to an already-approved land conservation project in Augusta.
The property in question, Howard Hill, is the 164-acre forested backdrop to the state capitol that has become the symbol of Governor LePage’s opposition to the popular state-run LMF land conservation program.
The LMF board approved funding the Howard Hill project a year ago. Governor LePage then initiated a review of the appraisal process. Howard Hill passed that review and got the stamp of approval for the second time by the LMF appraisal committee last week.
The next step was for the whole board to vote to fund the project. It seemed likely they would approve it. Howard Hill had been scrutinized probably more thoroughly than any property that had come to the LMF board over the past 29 years.
Chandler Woodcock, who heads the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, was serving as acting chairman for the LMF program on October 25. Woodcock did not immediately call for a vote.
Instead, he announced there would be no public discussion or comment allowed, then led board discussions that resulted in a board vote that slashed already-approved funding for the Howard Hill project in half.
Then Neil Piper, the longest-serving public board member, walked out.
Maine voters have consistently supported the LMF program for almost three decades as an effective means to keep working waterfront, coastal areas, deer hunting areas, recreation areas, and lands of scenic and ecological importance open to public access.
During his two terms in office, LePage has worked hard to undermine it. He withheld voter-approved bond funds for the LMF program twice over the past three years — the last time while he tried unsuccessfully to strong-arm the Legislature into increasing timber harvesting on Maine Public Reserve Lands and diverting the timber revenue to an unrelated energy project.
By October 2015, the Howard Hill project had met all the LMF requirements. The board had accepted the appraised value and approved using LMF bond funds to pay for
30 percent of the total sale price — or $337,500. The Kennebec Land Trust was fund-raising. Last fall, they borrowed $500,000 based on the 2015 LMF board’s approval of the project.
In total, the Kennebec Land Trust was on the hook for 70 percent of the total $925,000 price tag for Howard Hill — a sale price they considered a bargain, given the development potential of the land.
Last winter, LePage said he didn’t agree that Howard Hill was worth the money. He said the appraised land value of just over $1 million was inflated.
Proponents responded that the land had been approved in the past for a 53-lot subdivision and had high development potential far above its tax-assessed value of $171,000 as timberland. It was appraised at highest and best use potential, following LMF guidelines.
There was also this: LePage has a well-publicized personal vendetta against Republican Senator Roger Katz. And it was Katz’ former law partner that had sold Howard Hill to the Kennebec Land Trust.
Next, LePage initiated an Office of Policy and Management investigation into the LMF appraisal process. That led to a second appraisal review of Howard Hill.
Meanwhile, the entire LMF board now, as of this fall, is made up of either new LePage appointees or state employees serving at the pleasure of the governor. All, except Neil Piper.
Piper, a lifelong Republican and retired appraiser originally from Presque Isle, was appointed to the LMF board two and a half years ago by LePage. He volunteered his time because he wanted to give something back; he believes in public access to land, thinks conservation lands are important to all Mainers, and felt his appraisal expertise might help prioritize projects and streamline the LMF process.
During Piper’s tenure, the process has been tightened and streamlined, according to former reports from the board.
Piper started his term on the board at the same time the Howard Hill proposal came in for review. He was part of the appraisal committee for its first review, then headed the appraisal committee during the second review that led to a 4-0 vote of approval last week.
Now, two and a half years into the Howard Hill review, the Kennebec Land Trust was waiting for the second sign-off by a newly configured LMF board.
They had every reason to expect it. No factual errors were found in the appraisal process, according to Piper.
On October 25, 2016, a year after they had first approved Howard Hill for funding, the LMF board approved the appraisal report for the second time and the appraisal investigation results with little discussion.
Howard Hill finally appeared ready for sign-off.
That’s when Woodcock sent the meeting into the legal williwags.
One of the board members made a motion to cut the Howard Hill funding from 30 percent to 10 percent.
Discussion about the appraised value of the property followed. The argument LePage had tendered that the property was worth far less than the land trust paid came back into play.
Piper was surprised. He reminded the board that the LMF rulebook for appraising property had been followed, twice, for Howard Hill.
He later said the new board members didn’t seem surprised at all. It was as if they had planned to bring up the value of the land all over again, without any facts to bolster their arguments and without bothering to put it on the agenda or inform Piper ahead of time, he said.
Jeff Romano, the policy director for Maine Coast Heritage Trust, and Theresa Kerchner, the head of the Kennebec Land Trust, were sitting in the audience.
They were surprised, too. It was essentially a done deal. The Kennebec Land Trust was raising money towards their goal and was already working with the city on community planning. Howard Hill would be a managed demonstration forest that was so close to the state house that legislators could walk up the hill and see how forestry worked on the ground. Bow hunting was already allowed, it would have mountain bike trails, hiking trails, connect the rail trail to the river and connect Hallowell to Augusta. It also served as an important wildlife corridor and was of historical importance.
Even Tom Warren, CEO of the Kennebec Valley YMCA, was touting it as important to improving the health of Augusta youth and families. From the view of the city, it was an open-space asset.
Romano raised his hand to ask a question. So did Jim Norris, a former LMF board member who was in the audience. Kerchner tried to ask a question.
Woodcock conferred with LMF staffer Sarah Demers, then announced that this LMF board was not bound by previous LMF board decisions, according to Romano.
Romano asked for a point of order.
What procedures was Woodcock following?
At issue here is the Administrative Procedures Act, a state law that governs policies and procedures in state agencies and meetings. Policies can be changed, but not without following procedural process laid down by state law, Romano later said.
There was also the LMF workbook governing public input.
“Page Ten,” said Piper. “It’s on the LMF website.”
The way Romano sees it, the LMF board had already agreed on a contract with the Kennebec Land Trust and appeared to be about to violate it.
That’s when Woodcock said no public comment was allowed.
Then, without due process or any kind of fact-based evidence, the LMF board voted willy-nilly to slash the Howard Hill funding in half from $337,500 to $163,500.
Neil Piper walked out, vowing to resign.
Piper had stayed on the LMF board during the governor’s bond hostage crisis. He had remained calm and reasonable, even as other board members fumed during bond-hostage board meetings when they couldn’t move forward with reviewing conservation land proposals because there wasn’t money enough to even make photocopies.
At the time, Piper said he recognized that holding up the bond funds could damage the credibility of the program, but the review process hadn’t been molested. Piper planned to stay the course.
That was until the LePage adminstration got down in there and messed with the process on October 25.
“I think this is a set-up job by the governor’s office,” Piper said of the meeting.
“Howard Hill is the tip of it,” said Piper. “It is indicative of the corruption of LMF. There has been a gradual tightening of control by the governor. Now, he has replaced all the board members and there is no one in the way to keep the governor from infusing politics into this process.”
“My knowledge and expertise isn’t needed anymore,” said Piper, explaining his decision to resign. “I am not willing to carry water for the governor.”
By the time LePage leaves office, land conservation efforts under the LMF program will be set back at least five years, he said.
“I think LMF can survive, but it will take more than the governor leaving,” said Piper. “The damage is done. Trust in the LMF process is broken.”
And perhaps the law has been broken, too, said Romano.
Maine Coast Heritage Trust, which works with many local land trusts, is investigating whether the Administrative Procedure Act was broken. That is the law that governs state agency process and procedures.
“What process were they following? What reasoning did they have for going ahead without public comment? Those are the questions we have,” said Romano. “Public involvement is a bedrock constitutional principl.”
And then there is due process. Romano sees the October 2015 sign-off on Howard Hill as a contract by LMF, according to their own policy.
“They can’t just appoint new board members and change the vote,” said Romano.
But, they did.
The basic, as yet unanswered, question is whether the LMF board is required by rule or law to allow public comment. If they are, what recourse does the public have if they don’t? This is the public’s money, after all.
A request for comment from Woodcock on the procedures he followed at the October 25 LMF board meeting were unanswered as of press time.