Senator Edgecomb, Representative Hickman, and members of the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee. My name is Eliza Donoghue and I am the North Woods Policy Advocate for the Natural Resources Council of Maine. I appreciate this opportunity to testify on behalf of our 16,000 members and supporters in opposition to the nomination of Lisa Turner to the Land for Maine’s Future (LMF) Board.
We take this nomination process seriously. We carefully review the position for which the candidate has been nominated, as well as the candidate’s qualifications and public record. Over the past 25 years that the LMF program has been in place, NRCM has never testified against a nominee for the LMF Board—but we feel compelled to do so today.
We oppose this nominee because we do not believe that she would be a strong advocate for the LMF program or that she would be able to fulfill board responsibilities with an open mind. Ms. Turner has been an outspoken critic of land trust-owned farms, two of which have been purchased with the help of LMF funds. Through her communications, she has spread myths about the LMF program, land trusts, and land trust-owned farms.
At a time when LMF has finally emerged from a period of instability and uncertainty, caused by political interference with voter-approved funding, we believe it is essential that board members represent the program accurately and without bias.
Let me specifically address some of the inaccurate information that has been spread by the nominee.
The target of the nominees attacks are land trust-owned farms, which are farms owned in fee by a land trust and used for agricultural production. In very few cases, land trusts in Maine have purchased farm properties and continued to own them. Often, this decision has been made for the purpose of preserving a property that is emblematic of an area’s rural heritage, guaranteeing that the land will remain in agricultural production and provide community benefits.
The community benefits of land trust-owned farms include access to healthy, local, low-cost foods; public walking trails; agricultural education; and open space. LMF has contributed funding to two farmland projects that are owned in fee by land trusts. LMF bonds approved by the voters require that public funds be matched with private funds. In reality, for every $1 of state money, LMF partners have contributed $3 in additional investments.
Ms. Turner has shared her misinformed opposition to land trust-owned farms publically through articlesi, on podcastsii, and via her business’s websiteiii.
Examples include the following:
The Laughing Stock Farm website claims that land trusts and land trust-owned farms are exempt from income and property taxes. This is not accurate. Farmers who operate land trust-owned farms are not exempt from income tax. With regard to property taxes, roughly 95% of land trust conserved land of all types, including farms, remains on municipal tax rolls. Approximately 1% is tax exempt, but these land trusts have made Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILOTs), often greater than or equal to what the property taxes would have been had the property remained on the tax rolls. No more than 4% of land trust properties in Maine are tax exempt with no PILOTs being paid.
Ms. Turner has claimed that land trust-owned farms are leased at unfairly competitive rates. The land trust-owned farms that NRCM is familiar with lease their property at the market rate, enough to cover taxes, liability insurance, and long-term maintenance of the property.
The nominee’s husband and business partner claimed in testimony opposing the 2012 Land for Maine’s Future Bond that when land and development rights are acquired by land trusts, it devalues surrounding properties. There is no evidence for this assertion. In fact, conserved lands of all types, including land trust-owned farms, tend to positively affect the values of surrounding properties.
If Ms. Turner were appointed to the Board, we would be very concerned that her inaccurate statements would be accepted as authority and would negatively impact the program’s reputation.
Furthermore, because Ms. Turner has such a strong bias against the allocation of LMF funding for land trust-owned farms, we are concerned that she would not be able to assess, without undue prejudice, whether proposed projects meet the program’s acquisition criteria.
The LMF program has a strong reputation of improving Maine communities and preserving Maine’s character through a fair, transparent, publically-supported process. Past and current LMF board members have contributed to the program’s stellar reputation and success. We do not believe that the nominee before this Committee would bring the objective perspective that Maine people expect. For these reasons, we urge you to vote against the nomination.
I appreciate this opportunity to testify and would welcome the opportunity to answer any questions you may have.
i See Maine Farmland Trust News, May 12, 2012, http://www.mainefarmlandtrust.org/new-breed-of-maine-farmers-say-survival-depends-on-optimism-ingenuity/.
ii EconTalk, “Lisa Turner on Organic Farming,” December 24, 2012.
iii See website for Laughing Stock Farm, http://www.laughingstockfarm.com/, “Politics,” “Land Trusts and Their Farms.”