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Maine Compass: Land trusts earn their tax breaks


given the right to apply for local real estate exemptions? What do land trusts provide to deserve it? A review of conservation land in Somerset County may be instructive. Somerset County is fortunate to contain some of Maine’s most spectacular scenery.


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GovPaul LePage says he plans to repeal a tax exemption for the trusts, but that would hurt valuable conservation efforts By Jack Gibson and Nancy Williams Share Read Article We all love Maine for its splendor of natural wealth: its ocean shores, mountains, great rivers, forests, and fields of blueberries and corn that define our farm communitiesWe treasure our freedom to fish on great ponds, to hike up mountains where generations have viewed this state’s majesty, and to hunt on unposted landWe should know that, as more “no trespassing” signs appear along our roads, the land preserved by conservation nonprofits and the state secures our heritage of open space. GovPaul LePage has said he wants to remove the real estate tax exemption allowed for properties owned by nonprofit land trustsWhy are conservation land trusts, along with other nonprofits such as private colleges, given the right to apply for local real estate exemptions? What do land trusts provide to deserve it? A review of conservation land in Somerset County may be instructive. Somerset County is fortunate to contain some of Maine’s most spectacular sceneryThe North Woods of Somerset County features magnificent views of mountains and lakes as seen from U.SRoute 201 and then reaching eastward to the shores of Moosehead LakeConservation organizations and Maine’s Bureau of Parks and Lands have protected much of the vast forest resources of the North Woods, assuring Maine will forever be the Pine Tree State and a destination for outdoor enthusiastsSome of this land is protected by conservation easements and remains on the tax rolls and/or subject to Maine’s Forest Excise Tax. In the southern half of the county, Somerset Woods Trustees has been protecting parcels since 1927Our group is governed by local residents answerable to the interests and needs of their constituentsOf the 1,800 acres that we safeguard, 800 acres of private land, protected by conservation easements, remain on the tax rollsThe remaining 1,000 acres are open and maintained, free to the publicThe 1,000 acres are spread across nine towns: Skowhegan, Madison, Embden, Solon, Concord, Norridgewock, Starks, Cornville and CanaanStill, there are 2,620,800 acres in Somerset County; 1,000 acres occupies only 0.04 percent of the county. Along with our group, there are 79 other land organizations in MaineWhy not rely on the state alone to safeguard public land? Maine has protected only 6.5 percent of its total area, the lowest percentage among Eastern statesBy comparison, New Hampshire has protected 17 percent and Massachusetts 10 percentLand trusts also thrive and own additional land in those states, working in partnership with towns, cities and the state to protect farmland, forests, water access and places of spectacular, unique beauty. Properties such as Coburn Woods cost the local taxpayers nothing, but all are welcome to hike, ski, hunt or ride on 4 miles of mountain bike trailsCoburn Woods will become a destination for many bikers who may also stop to shop downtown or eat at local restaurants. Somerset Woods Trustees also provided the land along the Kennebec Gorge for the Debe Park Trail in Skowhegan and extended that trail into Philbrick WoodsIn Madison, we maintain water access for small boats, and in Skowhegan we provide the land to the state for Cleaver Landing boat ramp. Our group has given a long-term lease to the Maine Appalachian Trail Club to build their training center in Skowhegan and provided land for other uses, such as a children’s playground in SkowheganWe assist land owners in protecting their family forests for future generations by holding conservation easementsWe protect properties where endangered or threatened plants thriveAnd we are developing a 20-acre field of native wildflowers and grasses to attract butterflies, bees and other insects vital to pollination of not only our backyard plants, but to our commercial orchards and blueberry fields. A few years ago concrete barriers appeared without prior notice at the picnic and historic site on the Kennebec River in Skowhegan, blocking the site from visitorsThe land had been leased by Somerset Woods Trustees for the state to use as a public picnic areaThe Trustees quickly negotiated with the state to remove the barriers, and re-opened the site with the assistance of generous local donorsLast year we installed a kiosk to display brochures and maps of local trails and events. Maine residents have voted time after time to support protection of public landsThe governor’s proposal appears to be contrary to the voters’ support of conservation and the services that land trusts provide to our communities and tourism industryWe encourage the Legislature to consider the many benefits to our state that land trusts provide, and to vote down any proposal that removes the tax exemptions available to them. Jack Gibson is president of Somerset Woods TrusteesNancy Williams is the group’s executive director. 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