A program that rewards lakefront property owners for good environmental stewardship will soon be run by a private nonprofit lakes association instead of the state.

An official with the Department of Environmental Protection, which created the LakeSmart program in 2004, said the decision to transfer it was made because a local nonprofit is more likely to get widespread participation than the state.

The Belgrade Lakes-based Maine Congress of Lakes Associations, which is poised to fully take over the program Nov. 1, is seeking funding to help keep the program going.

Samantha DePoy-Warren, DEP spokeswoman, said no new lakes have joined LakeSmart over the last year or two; while 33 lakes have participated over the course of the program’s history, only about 10 lakes had active participation this year.

Property owners, especially those who would benefit from the exposure to the program’s educational message, are wary of inviting state inspectors onto their land, knowing that those same inspectors have the power to fine them for environmental violations.

“We feel that more lakefront property owners, including those that need the extra education this program provides, would feel more comfortable inviting LakeSmart onto their property,” DePoy-Warren said.

Maggie Shannon, president of the congress, agreed.

“It’s hard for a regulatory agency that goes out with a stick to dangle a carrot and have people respond,” she said. “This is the ultimate carrot.”

LakeSmart is meant to encourage responsible lakefront stewardship by awarding highly visible lawn signs to those who meet certain criteria during a visit from certified inspectors.

For example, an applicant might receive points for planting vegetative buffers that slow pollutant-bearing runoff, but lose points for owning a dog that leaves waste by the water’s edge.

Phyllis Matson and her husband, Lynn Matson, have participated in the program for the last 3½ years, both as property owners and as volunteer inspectors in a pilot LakeSmart training program run by the department and the Belgrade Lakes Association.

Over that time, she estimates that they’ve screened about 45 properties on Long Pond and Great Pond, which are part of the Belgrade Lakes system.

She said property owners understand the difference between her and a state regulator. “We make clear to them that we’re not the lake police,” she said.

Phyllis Matson said that she will continue to participate in the program as long as it continues to protect the lakes.

“As long as standards are kept the same,” she said, “I don’t care who runs it.”

LakeSmart was begun on the idea that, after a certain number of signs are awarded on a given lake, a tipping point would be achieved that would put social pressure on other property owners to have their land evaluated and certified as well.

That tipping point comes around the 15 percent mark, said Shannon.

“This is based on a whole body of knowledge that studies human behavior. We don’t do what we’re told to do. We do what our neighbors do,” Shannon said.

The problem, said DePoy-Warren, is that the program hasn’t been very popular under the state’s supervision, so the theoretical tipping point is not being achieved.

She estimates that, after spending an estimated $1 million on LakeSmart over the years, mostly in staff time, the program has reached fewer than 500 of the tens of thousands of lakefront property owners in the state. Of Maine’s 2,300 lakes, only 33 have had even a single participating landowner.

“If you break out the numbers, it’s been about $2,000 per property,” she said. “I need a program that, for that amount of money, is more far-reaching. I need to think about educating more owners than 500 homes over 10 years. “

Shannon said that, with an army of volunteers from 120 member lake associations, her group can also bring down the costs of the program while increasing participation.

While the department has estimated the program’s costs to be about $100,000 per year, Shannon said the congress can run it in 2013 for between $65,000 and $70,000.

The money, however, is not yet in place.

DePoy-Warren said that the department, which will continue to offer technical support for LakeSmart, helped the congress to apply for some grants.

“They’re in a much better place to solicit private and nonprofit and public sector funding in a way that the department is just not able to pursue,” she said.

Shannon said that a fundraising campaign will begin in earnest in November.

“We think a lot of individuals and local businesses would be interested ins supporting this and being recognized,” she said. “Many towns depend on these lakes for essential services. In my town, Rome, 60 percent of the economic activity comes from lakefront properties. They’re life-giving.”

The goal is to get 60 lakes involved in the program by 2018, an increase of about 10 lakes per year, according to a transition summary from the congress.

For 2013, the plan is to maintain LakeSmart’s presence in lakes that currently participate. At the same time, Shannon said that there will be “an energetic and systematic review” of the program to figure out how to improve it. The established criteria to qualify for a LakeSmart award will not be changed, she said.

Morning Sentinel Staff Writer Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be contacted at 861-9287 or at:

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