AUGUSTA – Gov. Paul LePage has ordered the Maine Forest Service to work with municipal officials to review properties enrolled in the state’s tree growth tax program to root out potential abuses.

The program offers landowners property tax breaks when they promise to actively manage their woodlands with regular harvesting activities. The law was originally created to help keep timber flowing to the state’s wood products industries including lumber and paper mills but LePage and others have said they believe the program is being misused or even abused by some woodland owners.

“… the failure of some woodland owners to follow their forest management plan under the Tree Growth Tax Law Program jeopardizes the credibility of the program and creates perennial uncertainty about the program’s stability among the large percentage of woodland owners who are fulfilling their responsibilities under their forest management plans;” the governor’s executive order reads in part.

Under the order, forest service foresters will help municipalities review the properties benefiting from the program in order to help identify landowners who may not be following adequate management plans.

There are about 11 million acres of land in the program statewide, according to LePage’s order.

The program was also at the center of a 2009 controversy involving Maine’s 2nd District U.S. Congressman Bruce Poliquin, who had parts of a Georgetown property he owned enrolled in the program. Poliquin, a Republican, who also served as the State Treasurer prior to being elected to Congress, was criticized by a liberal advocacy group after a state review found his property may not have been following the rules for the program. Poliquin paid about $30 a year in property taxes for a 10-acre parcel of oceanfront forest he had enrolled in the program. He was later able transferred the land in question into another open space conservation program that provides less of a tax break. Typically landowners who withdraw their properties from tree growth program are then required to pay a penalty often in the form of back taxes on what the land would have been valued at had it not been in the program.

In LePage’s executive order he notes that “woodland owners who participate in the Tree Growth Tax Law Program shift a portion of their property tax burden to other property taxpayers in their municipalities.” During a recent state budget impasse and government shutdown, LePage was frequently critical of the program and of land trust organizations that are also granted some property tax benefits for conserving forest and farmland in Maine. LePage has argued the growth of property-tax rates, which are assessed at the municipal level, are due in large part to increasing numbers of tax-exempt properties.

LePage’s executive order directs the Forest Service to do four things:

– Contact municipalities and offer their services in reviewing tree growth management and harvest plans

– Help those municipalities that request assistance

– Help landowners who are found to be not in compliance get into compliance and

– Issue a report to the governor’s office on what they have found going on in the program by Dec. 15, 2017.

The Legislature this year also considered a bill offered by LePage that would have made changes to the program including increasing the minimum lot size for participation from 10 acres to 25 acres. The Legislation, which was supported by the Maine Municipal Association, also required an official Forest Service audit of the tree growth program and removal of properties from the program that were not meeting requirements.

That bill L.D. 1599 was introduced late in the lawmaking session and was carried over for continued work in 2018.

Opponents to the bill including the Maine Woodland Owners Association said it was largely a reincarnation of previous efforts to do away with the program in Maine.

“Unfortunately, despite numerous reviews and audits, discussions about the Tree Growth Tax Law program seem to be driven more by assumptions and perceptions then reality,”Tom Doak, the association’s executive director told members of the Legislature’s Taxation Committee. “The Tree Growth Tax Law is the single most important tax law there is for Maine’s small woodland owners (generally people owning between ten and a few hundred acres of land). For thousands of small woodland owners in Maine, it is what allows them to keep land as forestland in an undeveloped state and producing the public benefits of wildlife habitat, clean

water, outdoor recreation opportunities and wood for the forest products industry.”

Doug Denico, the director of the Maine Forest Service, told the committee it had conducted a random sample audit of tree growth lands in 2011 and noted that 86 percent of those enrolled in the program were following their forest management plans, but about 55 percent of those enrolled in the program had management plans that did not comply with the law’s requirements. “We concluded that the Tree Growth Tax Law has been effective at achieving its intended purposes,” Denico said. “However, it is clear that the parties responsible for administering the program must redouble their efforts to weed out those few landowners who are abusing the program.”

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 791-6330 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: thisdog