AUGUSTA, Maine — Lawmakers have begun diving into the issue of land conservation programs, which supporters say benefit surrounding communities and Republican Gov. Paul LePage has often derided as a tax giveaway for wealthy interests.
LePage has, for years, criticized lawmakers for catering to wealthy groups and individuals whom he claims enjoy scenic views on tax-exempt land that increase property taxes for seniors and poor Mainers. In the days before this year’s three-day government shutdown over the state budget, LePage claimed that Democrats were ignoring his proposal to remove property tax exemptions for land trusts and nonprofits that hold large tracts of land.
“They have taken hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of conservation land off the tax rolls, which increases local property taxes,” LePage said. He added: “Democrats are more interested in kowtowing to wealthy environmental organizations, like Natural Resources Council of Maine and Maine Coast Heritage Trust, than protecting the Maine taxpayer.”
In the end, lawmakers passed a two-year budget that called for a legislative study due in February that looks at conserved Maine lands owned by nonprofits. The committee is set to meet Thursday to discuss the study, which will examine the tax implications and community impact of conserved lands, which can be used for hunting, hiking, educational programs and forestry.
The idea for the study came from LePage’s office, according to Democratic Rep. Michelle Dunphy, who co-chairs the Legislature’s agriculture, conservation and forestry committee.
“My personal belief is that the intrinsic value far outweighs any tax benefit,” she said.
A Republican legislator this year introduced an unsuccessful bill to remove the tax-exempt status from land held by nonprofit land trusts and conservation organizations. The Maine Municipal Association, which supported the legislation, said property taxpayers shoulder the burden of tax exemptions while conserved land owners can sometimes decide how much to pay in payments in lieu of taxes.
Maine Municipal Association spokesman Eric Conrad said the group believes land conservation is an individual decision for each community. “Does it create jobs, does it help tourism in the area?” he said. “Will nearby land value increase?
Conservation groups argue their statistics show most land they conserve is on the tax rolls.
Over 75 groups conserve more than 2.5 million acres of Maine land, said Thomas Abello, external affairs director of The Nature Conservancy’s Maine chapter.
Land trusts pay no taxes or payments in lieu of taxes on about 80,000 to 100,000 acres of land in mainly suburban, urban and coastal communities, Maine Coast Heritage Trust public policy manager Jeff Romano has said. He said eliminating exemptions would lower property tax bills only slightly.
“My hope is the committee will provide an accurate picture and help inform the Legislature and the governor what land trusts are actually doing in Maine,” Romano said.