November 22, 2012

Maine group wants to unlock voter-approved funding

The board of Land for Maine's Future hopes to meet with Gov. LePage on several key projects.

By North Cairn ncairn@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Gov. Paul LePage's decision to defer $40 million in voter-approved bond issues may imperil several major land conservation projects, according to the Land for Maine's Future program.

The program's board is seeking a meeting with LePage to detail its concerns about the future of various projects, including the preservation of a family farm in Topsham, an orchard in Standish, a greenway along the Androscoggin River, and timberland in Franklin and Washington counties.

Board members say they need about $2 million to $3 million to complete the deals.

Adrienne Bennett, the governor's spokeswoman, said Wednesday that LePage's office had yet to receive a request from Land for Maine's Future, but for now, at least, he is unlikely to change his mind.

The land program, established in 1987, operates under the Department of Conservation and is the state's main agency for acquiring land for preservation.

It conserves some land through donated or purchased easements, and acquires many properties in deals financed by bond sales.

The projects often entail complex agreements, involving matching funds from federal programs, municipal appropriations, donations by citizens and local fundraising campaigns.

The program has enough money to close on some of its current projects, but not all, said board member Ben Emory of Bar Harbor.

The program has committed to funding more than 20 land projects at a cost of nearly $7 million, but has only about $4.7 million. Any project that can be completed by Jan. 22 will be funded.

The funding to cover the rest of the program's approved and anticipated projects is under LePage's control, and he "has been just unbudging" about releasing the money, said Emory.

LePage said in June that it would not be fiscally prudent for the state to issue new bonds before January 2014. His decision effectively froze access to about $40 million in bonds that were approved by voters in 2010.

That has created a problem for several communities and agencies that have development or conservation contracts about to be finalized.

Some contracts have been delayed, and projects that already had been started have been stopped.

The land program's board expects it will be short at least $2 million to $3 million on approved projects within a couple of months. The projects include the Scammon Farm in Topsham, Randall Orchard in Cumberland County, Androscoggin Greenway in Canton and Jay, Pleasant Bay Wildlife Management Area in Addison, and working- forest projects such as Crocker Mountain in Franklin County and West Grand Lake Forest in Washington County.

"The board's in a pretty tough position," said Tom Abello, senior policy advisor for the Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit organization that often applies for program funds. LePage's position "makes things pretty murky" for moving ahead on authorized projects, he said.

Without money from the bond sales, matching funds from federal sources may dry up, or the participating parties will have to seek extensions of at least a year, Abello said.

That would leave some projects "in some sort of limbo" that could have "very negative consequences."

The bond approvals granted by voters will run out in 2015, and Bennett said the governor "won't let these bonds expire."

In the meantime, she said, the land program and organizations that support it must pursue alternatives through "out-of-the-box-type thinking."

Less than 10 percent of Maine is publicly owned -- a relatively low percentage nationally. Since the late 1980s, Maine voters have approved more than $100 million in bonds for land purchases and conservation.

More than 445,000 acres have been conserved through the program. Nearly 1,000 miles of waterfront land have been preserved, along with 150 miles of recreational trails along abandoned rail corridors.

A total of 189 land conservation projects have been completed throughout Maine's 16 counties.

 

Staff Writer North Cairn can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

ncairn@pressherald.com

 

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