May 25, 2018
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Conservation creates property tax worries for Montville

By Sandy George, Special to the BDN

Many thanks to reporter Abigail Curtis and the Bangor Daily News for the April 5 article about Montville’s “angry” town meeting.

The “angry” issue — aside from holding our town meeting in Liberty — is property taxation. The article refers to a sentiment expressed by Buck O’Herin, a board member of Sheepscot Wellspring Land Alliance, describing “mistrust of the land trust” as part of the issue. As a neighbor, I suggest that it is not mistrust but rather realization that the aggressive and accelerating acquisition policy of the land trust has consequences for other taxpayers.

Sheepscot Wellspring Land Alliance, in Liberty, is one of 88 land trusts currently operating in Maine with the common mission of “protecting and preserving” land. On several occasions, SWLA and Sheepscot Valley Conservation Association, in Newcastle, were invited by local residents to attend an open discussion about their future plans for fee acquisitions and servitude (conservation) easements. All invitations for public discussions were deferred.

In the 1990s, when SWLA had its beginnings, there was an analysis of the impact of permanent land conservation performed by Ad Hoc Associates of Salisbury, Vt., commissioned by Maine Coast Heritage Trust.

Among the conclusions of the report: “A tax shift generally results from permanent protection of land. The purpose of calculating the town’s short term revenue loss due to conservation is to give taxpayers an objective starting point for evaluating whether or not conservation is a worthwhile long-term investment in their community — just as taxpayers would be able to evaluate the appropriateness of a tax increase to invest in the school or a new fire truck.”

In Maine, when land is designated as permanently protected, taxes are assessed at a reduced rate than if the land were unprotected. With less tax money able to support town budgets, costs shifts to other property taxpayers.

The public process of evaluating SWLA’s goals here in Montville, as well as other land trusts in other communities, has not taken place. The driving force behind permanent land preservation is the demand of the population south of Portland and its willingness to donate funds. Do those who fund these projects realize that permanent preservation is creating economic collateral damage in rural Maine communities?

The economic consequence takes the form of increased property tax imposed on the taxpayers of Montville and other rural towns. If it were simply a matter of providing outdoor public space for local residents, the 5,000 acre Frye Mountain game reserve in Montville, and other state-owned properties in rural areas, would suffice. But in order to appease the insatiable appetite of the mass population for perceived areas to recreate, local communities are expected to carry the tax burden.

Montville is not unique in that escalating property taxes are of great concern to residents. Nor is Montville unique in that scrutiny of land trust activities and acquisitions are currently occurring. There is more discussion about non-profit corporations and collaborative preservation initiatives beginning to surface across Maine.

More documentation is surfacing to substantiate that there is indeed a shift in tax burden directly related to aggressive conservation activities particularly in small rural towns with a limited tax base. From Casco to Limington, from Newry to Montville, from Atkinson to Blue Hill and Frenchboro, taxpayers are awakening to the reality of the negative impact preservation pressure has on their property tax bills and questioning the wisdom of perpetual land use designations.

Montville is a small, rural western Waldo County town, with only 702 taxpayers. We manage our school system, RSU 3, with 10 other towns. Our share of the 2012-2013 school district operating budget is $690,000 and is expected to dramatically increase in 2013-2014. For those of us who are working for wages, widowed, retired or, indeed, anyone who owns a home, the concern about meeting our property tax obligation is paramount.

Every town needs its schools and roads. Municipal budgets do not decrease in the same proportion that tax revenues decrease when land is permanently protected. The thought of additional acreage added to permanent classifications and shifting the tax burden to homes, farms and small businesses is economically terrifying to the taxpayers of small rural towns.

Sandy George has operated North Ridge Farms in Montville for 46 years and served as president of the Maine Farm Bureau from 1996 to 2001.

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