June 24, 2018
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Land for Maine’s Future Fund empties; time to replenish it?


Mainers have overwhelmingly supported bond issues over the last 25 years to purchase land for public access. Yet despite this broad-based support, the notion of government buying land to stop it from being developed makes free-market advocates see red (pun intended).

This week, join us at The Maine Debate (below) from 10 a.m. to noon and beyond as we discuss the future of the Land for Maine’s Future program. Help flesh out the arguments on both (or more) sides of the question of how this effort should continue in a post-recession, limited-state-funding world.

First, some background.

The Legislature established the program in 1987 during Republican Gov. John McKernan’s administration. The booming 1980s saw real estate speculation (remember “spec houses”?) and demand from retirees carve up land that most locals expected would always be open. In addition, the legacy paper companies that owned most of the North Woods were changing hands, putting the future of leased camps and hunting and fishing areas in jeopardy.

The idea was simple: borrow money, create a board that identified key parcels that met a specific criteria and purchase them from willing sellers. Each purchase resulted in land that was open to the public.

The legislation put it this way:

“The Legislature declares that the future social and economic well-being of the citizens of this state depends upon maintaining the quality and availability of natural areas for recreation, hunting and fishing, conservation, wildlife habitat, vital ecologic functions and scenic beauty and that the state, as the public’s trustee, has a responsibility and a duty to pursue an aggressive and coordinated policy to assure that this Maine heritage is passed on to future generations.”

In the early years, large tracts of often remote land were preserved. In more recent years, the borrowed money was used in conjunction with local land trust money, private and corporate donations and seller discounts to buy land with scenic views, farms and waterfront access for fishermen. To date, following multiple referendums in which voters endorsed borrowing $126 million in all, the program has preserved more than 530,000 acres.

But the news this week is that nearly 40 requests for the $9.25 million remaining in the fund will drain or nearly drain it. There is no bond request in the referendum pipeline to replenish the fund. A stingy Republican-controlled Legislature and GOP governor did not want to borrow, given the weak state of the economy.

While this might seem prudent, it could be argued that voters should have the ultimate say over borrowing; if they want to borrow, at historically low interest rates, to keep purchasing land, should the Legislature stand in their way?

Or is it time for a different way of thinking about government, a way that does not put public money into the private real estate market? Do public purchases drive up costs for private buyers? Could it have a deleterious effect on the economy?

Join us Tuesday.

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