GEORGETOWN — Selectmen here say they would consider looking into allegations that state Treasurer Bruce Poliquin has been abusing Maine’s Tree Growth Tax Program to reduce his property taxes.

But during a meeting Thursday night at Town Hall, they said any review of Poliquin’s oceanfront home and land at 186 Ledgemere Road should include a review of the roughly 10 other lots in Georgetown that receive tax breaks under the Tree Growth program.

“It might behoove the town to evaluate all the lots to make sure they are in compliance,” said Geoff Birdsall, the board’s chairman. He said it would be unfair to single out one property owner.

When Birdsall was asked by a reporter what town officials might do, he said the issue will be considered at a future selectmen’s meeting.

Maine’s Tree Growth Tax Law, established in 1971, taxes woodlands according to their tree productivity rather than their development potential. Reducing property owners’ tax burden encourages them to retain and improve their woodlands.

Landowners with at least 10 acres of woodland can apply for exemptions from their towns’ tax assessors, provided they show forest management and harvesting plans.

Every 10 years, landowners in the program must demonstrate that they are in compliance with their plans. The primary use of the land is supposed to be commercial forestry.

A state report issued in 2009 cites Poliquin’s 12.3-acre property on a peninsula in Georgetown as the type of high-value property that fuels concerns that the program is being used to shift the tax burden from wealthy landowners to other taxpayers.

Poliquin did not return a message left Thursday night on his cellphone.

The issue was raised Thursday night by A. Myrick Freeman III, who has lived in Georgetown for 35 years. Freeman said he is a retired Bowdoin College professor of economics and environmental studies.

He told selectmen that when Poliquin acquired the property in 2001, his deed included a covenant that precluded commercial harvesting of timber. The state tax law is designed to give tax breaks in exchange for sustainable commercial timber harvesting.

The deed provision was part of an agreement that the Nature Conservancy made with the people who owned the property before Poliquin. As a result, the Nature Conservancy visits the property to make sure that Poliquin is in compliance.

Freeman said the Nature Conservancy has found no evidence of trees being harvested.

“I am concerned with anything that increases the tax burden on other taxpayers,” Freeman said.

He asked if there is anything the town could do to correct the situation, and asked if the selectmen knew about the deed covenant restricting harvesting.

“What can the town do?” Freeman asked. “Can it revoke the tree growth plan?”

Birdsall was not a selectmen when Poliquin’s property was placed in the program in 2004, but Selectman Bill Plummer was.

“I signed in 2004. Do I remember everything that went on that day? No I don’t,” Plummer said. “Was I aware of the covenant in his deed in 2004? I don’t know. That is as honest as I can be.”

Freeman said Poliquin knew he was taking advantage of a tax loophole.

“It really is an abuse of the tree growth law,” Freeman said. “If he knew about the covenant, he knew that he could not harvest trees. That puts the case in a different light and makes it far more serious.”

A political advocacy group known as Maine’s Majority released tax records earlier this month showing that the assessed value of Poliquin’s 12-acre estate dropped from $1.8 million to $725,000 after the tree growth exemption was approved by the town in 2004.

Poliquin’s tax liability for the 10-acre woodlot is just over $30 a year, according to the group. Town tax records for 2011 show that Poliquin paid $19,866.51 in property taxes on his 4,800-square-foot home and land.

Maine’s Majority has been a frequent critic of Gov. Paul LePage. The group says it represents the 61 percent of voters who did not vote for LePage in 2010.

Maine’s Majority has started an online effort asking people to sign a letter that asks Poliquin to provide the public with a copy of his forest management plan. Such plans are not subject to public disclosure, but Maine’s Majority says Poliquin could put the controversy to rest by releasing it.

The Legislature is considering several bills aimed at tightening tree-growth tax laws.

The Legislature’s Taxation Committee has unanimously endorsed L.D. 1470, sponsored by Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry. It would direct the Maine Forest Service to do annual, random surveys of properties in tree growth and report to the Legislature.

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

[email protected]

 


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.