AUGUSTA — The Land for Maine’s Future Board voted Tuesday to slash state funding for a controversial Augusta land conservation project that has been in Gov. Paul LePage’s cross hairs for more than a year.
Reversing course on an earlier decision, five members of the land conservation board – all of whom were either appointed by LePage this year or work for him – voted to reduce the state’s contribution to the $1.2 million Howard Hill project from $337,500 to $163,500 after a lively discussion about the value of the land.
Supporters of the lower figure questioned the accuracy of the roughly $1 million appraisal for the 164-acre property that serves as the forested backdrop of Maine’s State House.
“Preserving the property is great, but I think there is a terrible precedent if we start overpaying for property,” said board member Lisa Turner.
The lone dissenting board member, Neil Piper, questioned whether political agendas were driving “a horrible process.” He predicted the decision could cause future applicants and the public to lose confidence in the program.
“If the object is to kill the bond program totally, then this is a good step in that direction,” Piper, of Gorham, said moments before the vote. “And the process being followed here is so arbitrary … that I think you are going to undermine the total credibility of this board.”
Piper walked out of the room soon after the vote and told audience members gathered in the hallway that he was resigning from the board in protest.
CONSERVATION PROGRAM UNDER FIRE
The previous Land for Maine’s Future board voted 5-2 in October 2015 to allocate $337,500 to the project to preserve the hills literally across the street from the State House complex. The Kennebec Land Trust was responsible for the remaining costs of the $1.2 million project.
But Howard Hill became a flash point in the tug of war between LePage and the Legislature over land conservation, the governor’s repeated use of voter-approved bonds as political leverage and his plans to increase timber harvesting on state-owned lands.
LePage has singled out the Howard Hill project as an example of conservation organizations using taxpayer dollars to pay inflated sums of money to wealthy landowners. LePage frequently pointed out that the Kennebec Land Trust paid a company owned by a well-known local attorney, Sumner Lipman, $925,000 for land that the city of Augusta assessed at $171,000.
Members of the Kennebec Land Trust and supporters of the Howard Hill project, meanwhile, have fiercely defended the project because of the land’s development potential. The property was approved for a 53-lot subdivision nearly 30 years ago, although no houses were ever built.
“Today’s meeting was very disappointing,” said Theresa Kerchner, executive director of the land trust. “The vote of the LMF appears, to me, to be arbitrary and not based on the LMF process. I think the deliberations today will undermine confidence in LMF and LMF funding.”
Kerchner declined to comment on how the funding cut could affect the land trust, which took out a $500,000 loan to close the deal last year in anticipation of receiving $337,500 from LMF.
Created by voters as a way to preserve valuable forestland, farmland and working waterfronts, the Land for Maine’s Future program uses voter-approved bonds to help pay for land conservation projects. To date, the LMF program has protected more than 570,000 acres of land across the state since 1987, including such iconic spots as Cutler’s Bold Coast and Moosehead Lake’s Mount Kineo.
Project applicants are required to match every LMF dollar with funds from private or federal sources, and LMF funding often accounts for an even smaller portion of the total cost. Applications undergo a rigorous review process, including an appraisal prepared by an independent, professional appraiser.
But the appraisal process has drawn fire from LePage and others. Appraisals are often based on the “highest and best use” of the land. Howard Hill project backers say that is why 164 acres of timber assessed at only $171,000 is worth upwards of $1 million as potential housing real estate.
The Appraisal Oversight Committee reviewed the Howard Hill project after LePage’s Office of Policy and Management requested that the board review and potentially conduct new appraisals, but ultimately recommended accepting the $337,500 appraisal “with reservations.”
LMF board member and professional appraiser Fred Bucklin on Tuesday called the Howard Hill appraisal of $1,090,000 “speculative,” especially considering the lengthy time the property was on the market.
“I support the project, but I don’t think we should spend as much money on this project because of the speculative nature of the residential development,” Bucklin said. “We are trying to protect our investment here.”
That sparked a lengthy and, at times, tense discussion. Piper, who was appointed during LePage’s first term, said the previous board’s Appraisal Oversight Committee spent months reviewing the project before the full board signed off on the $337,500 allocation last fall.
“Now at the eleventh hour – going back two years and starting to change the rules – opens up a precedent that is concerning to me in terms of the process we follow and fairness to all of the applicants,” Piper said. “Changing the events midstream without having a real reason to do so causes me some concern.”
Acting board chairman Chandler Woodcock, LePage’s commissioner of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, declined to allow any comments from the public. In the audience was Jim Norris, who chaired the Appraisal Oversight Committee during the Howard Hill review.
Norris noted afterward that LePage’s four new citizen members were not part of the detailed analyses and discussions of the appraisal and scoring process. He called it “grossly unfair” that Howard Hill is being treated differently from other projects.
“I’m deeply disappointed,” Norris said. “I think it could hurt the credibility of the board. But maybe that is the intention.”
Last year, LePage sparked political controversy by trying to use LMF bonds as political leverage in order to win legislative approval for his plan to harvest more timber on state-owned land, with the proceeds paying for home heating assistance programs. LePage ultimately lost that battle and subsequently agreed to release LMF money and sell additional bonds. But the governor did succeed in replacing five of the six citizen members of the LMF board.
He also has continued to criticize the Howard Hill project. Some people have speculated that LePage’s strong opposition to Howard Hill was driven, at least in part, by his animosity toward Lipman’s former law partner, Sen. Roger Katz of Augusta, a moderate Republican whom LePage has called his “enemy” after repeated clashes between the two.
LePage’s office did not reply to a request for comment Tuesday afternoon on the board’s decision.