AUGUSTA — The state’s primary land conservation program is facing a $2.3 million funding gap that could endanger its ability to make good on commitments it’s made to 19 projects in the state.
Land for Maine’s Future, which has conserved more than 445,000 acres statewide since its start in 1987, has pledged about $6.95 million to help land trusts and other partners close deals on 18 parcels that will be set aside for conservation, recreation and sustainable forestry, and another parcel to be set aside for farming. The program, however, only has $4.66 million on hand.
Program officials thought they would have access by now to about $7 million in bond funding voters approved for the program in November 2010. Gov. Paul LePage, however, said in June that he doesn’t plan to sell the bonds until 2014.
Voters authorized another $5 million in bonds for the Land for Maine’s Future program earlier this month.
The governor and state treasurer have five years from the time voters authorize a bond package to sell the bonds on the market. LePage has said he doesn’t intend to let bonds lapse, but he doesn’t plan to issue more until he’s able to rein in state spending.
“The governor’s position on bonds is not about the individual merits of one program or another,” said LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett. “It’s more about Maine’s current fiscal state.”
But LePage’s refusal to sell bonds supported by voters two years ago has land trust officials whose organizations have qualified for Land for Maine’s Future grants wondering if they can make their deals work if they don’t receive their promised funding on time.
The Androscoggin Land Trust is working with Verso Paper in Jay and surrounding communities to buy about 1,300 acres from the paper company and set it aside as a community forest available for hunting, snowmobiling and other outdoor recreation.
The land trust last year qualified for a $240,000 Land for Maine’s Future grant, said Jonathan LaBonte, the land trust’s executive director. As a condition of receiving the grant, the land trust has to raise the same amount in matching funds from other sources.
“Some of those funders were told specific timelines of when we would close,” LaBonte said. “The landowner is sitting there with a set of assumptions that we shared with them on when we thought this would come together.”
It’s possible the purchase could wait until bond funding is released in 2014, LaBonte said. By then, however, the $30,000 appraisal the land trust paid for would no longer be valid.
“By the time the governor would allow the bonds to be issued, I’m going to have to spend money on a brand new appraisal,” LaBonte said. “If there was an intent not to allow bonds to be issued, the state should never have initiated the grant process or gone through the allocation in 2011.”
On advice from the LePage administration, the Land for Maine’s Future board issued a request for land conservation proposals in early 2011 — following voters’ approval of the $7 million bond package in 2010 — and approved funding for qualified projects. That was before LePage announced he didn’t plan to sell more bonds until 2014.
In Washington County, the Downeast Lakes Land Trust is preparing to close in the coming months on a conservation easement that will allow the state Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry to conserve nearly 22,000 acres of forest in and around Grand Lake Stream.
The parcel includes wetlands, 17 miles of lakeshore, three lakes and 42 miles of streams, said Mark Berry, Downeast Lakes Land Trust’s executive director.
“It’s a really important property for the community of Grand Lake Stream, where the economy is largely dependent on outdoor recreation and tourism,” he said.
The project depends on a $1.25 million Land for Maine’s Future grant and matching funds from the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Legacy Program and private sources.
“Anytime that you’re trying to line up other sources of funding and now have a delay of more than a year, that certainly puts the federal funding in jeopardy,” said Tom Abello, senior policy adviser for the Nature Conservancy in Maine.
Berry said he’s hoping Downeast Lakes Land Trust can secure its Land for Maine’s Future funding in the next few months since its project is nearing completion.
“We’re in a little bit better situation than some other projects because we potentially can close in time before they run out of money,” he said.
At a meeting Monday, Land for Maine’s Future board members agreed to set up a meeting with LePage staffers in an attempt to persuade LePage to release some land conservation bonds. With the funds it has on hand, the board decided to issue grants to those projects that need funds most urgently.
“I am not critical of the governor. He thinks this is the best way for us to go, but it puts the Land for Maine’s Future Board in a difficult position,” said Donald Marean, who was chairman of the Land for Maine’s Future board until earlier this week when he resigned following his election to the Maine House of Representatives.
Bennett, LePage’s spokeswoman, said the governor doesn’t intend to jeopardize Land for Maine’s Future projects and encourages the program to find alternate means to keep its commitments.
“There have been other state agencies that have helped town officials work on other gap-financing options,” Bennett said, referring to towns that qualified for bonds under the Communities for Maine’s Future program, which LePage also doesn’t plan to release until 2014.
“The governor certainly does encourage that out-of-the-box-type thinking,” Bennett said.