A bill designed to open large tracts of private land to public access could spell a more than $330,000 property tax increase for the Portland Water District in Standish.

LD 1328, sponsored by John Martin, a Democrat from Aroostook County, would require large landowners such as the District to provide public access to those lands placed in “tree growth” status, which results in significant propoerty tax breaks.

Martin’s bill could affect the tax liability of the Water District, which owns almost 2,000 acres of waterfront property on Sebago Lake that is tax sheltered in tree growth, but is also fenced in and posted no trespassing.

According to Peter Arnemann, Standish assessor, the District pays taxes on an assessed value of about $200 per acre of land on the 1,923 acres in tree growth protection. This results in a tax payment to the town of about $4,000.

If the land no longer qualified for tree growth, and was instead taxed according to actual fair market value, the District’s property tax bill would be around $335,000, Arnemann said.

“Within the tree growth benefit, the Water District is getting a $331,000 tax break from the town,” said Arnemann.

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The Water District took Standish to court in 1998 when the town quadrupled the assessed value of District property and made the assessment retroactive for three years. The district then was looking at a $600,000 tax bill for the period. Justice Roland A. Cole handed down a ruling that exempted the district from most of its taxation by the town.

At that time PWD took steps to reduce its tax liability by shifting almost 2,000 acres of land into the state tree-growth program.

Michelle Clements, District public relations manager, thinks the tree growth tax issue might be a moot point, because the district is about to open up 1,700 acres of land to the public.

“It is hard to know what the intent of this bill is. The purpose of the tree growth program is to sustain forests. That is in the public interest,” Clements said. “In 1998, the town increased our taxes retroactively and asked for $600,000. We were forced to look for ways to lower our liabilities. That is when we put our land into tree growth.”

Clements added, “Our board voted in October to open our lands to the public. We are planning to fence critical water shed protection areas and open up access by visiting kiosks for permits. The public could walk, hike, hunt, snowmobile and canoe by using our lands. With the access there are also limits such as camping, fires and ATVs that can have a negative impact. We are anxious to see this work.”

Gordon Billington, Standish town manager, thinks there is some contradiction in terms from the District about opening its lands to the public.

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“I see the district saying they are opening access to their lands, but also restricting these lands (with new fences),” Billington said. “These lands have been open to the town for centuries. Frankly, fencing the areas and creating prohibitive zones and limiting access to permits-only has the effect of doing the exact opposite of opening access. They say it is open, but in effect it further restricts the public’s rights.”

Jeff McNelly, executive director of the Maine Water Utilities Association (MWUA), said, “We are familiar with the bill, but haven’t taken a formal stance against the measure. Many of our members have property in tree growth. There are particularly good reasons to restrict public access to land around water supplies. The reason they own those lands is to protect the source or supply of water. Public access needs to be managed or controlled and the water utilities need to have that right.”

Town Councilor Cindy Hopkins, chair of the PWD/Standish steering committee, echoed Billington’s comments.

“Fences do not open access. I also have a problem with companies and utilities that put their lands into programs that take tax dollars away from the communities. Using loopholes to get out of paying their fair share is a trend that concerns me,” said Hopkins.

Portland Water District properties would not qualify for “tree growth” tax exemptions under a bill before the state Legislature.


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