AUGUSTA — Lawmakers are considering another review of the states's 40-year-old program that gives landowners property-tax discounts in exchange for developing sustainable timber harvesting plans.
Maine's Tree Growth Tax Law has been popular since it was adopted in 1972, comprising more than 11.2 million acres and functioning as a conservation tool while bolstering the state's forest products industry.
However, some municipalities have complained that some landowners are using the program as a tax shelter while never harvesting timber or following management plans sanctioned by the state.
Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry, hopes to tackle that issue with LD 1470, a concept bill that could lead to a study group with landowners, the Maine Municipal Association and the forest products industry.
Raye said he has seen and heard accounts of landowners who have shown no sign or intention of timber-harvesting their land in tree growth. Raye said the scope of the problem was unclear. However, he said, it was damaging the reputation of a successful program.
The tax shelter complaint is shared by at least 30 municipalities that last year responded to a Maine Municipal Association member survey. The majority of the 70 towns that responded to the query had no problem with the program. However, the issue has persisted for several years, leading some municipalities to argue that the system forced taxpayers paying full property taxes to subsidize those who are abusing the program.
Raye acknowledged that the issue was a "prickly" one, but he hoped the resulting bill would "dismiss the lingering tax shelter perceptions the program has suffered through for years."
Patrick Strout, representing the Maine Forest Products Council, told lawmakers on the Taxation Committee on Tuesday that he was concerned about the perception that the program is being abused by coastal and southern Maine communities. Strout said his association doesn't want changes to the law to lead to the loss of timber harvest lands in southern Maine.
Tom Doak, executive director of the Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine, noted that the tax shelter issue with the tree growth program was not new. Doak said it may be more perception than reality.
"The issue keeps coming back here because I think some people don't like the answers they're getting," said Doak, adding that people abusing the program should be identified and removed because they're creating a perception that's not helpful to those who are using it properly.
The problem, according to state officials, is enforcing the management plans. Landowners in the program submit management plans every 10 years to the Maine Forest Service, which in turn, monitors the plans.
There has been some discussion of shifting enforcement to local officials, given the Forest Service's limited resources. However, that idea has never materialized into a legislative mandate.
Donald Mansius, director of forest policy and management for the Maine Forest Service, recommended Tuesday that the Legislature enact emergency legislation that would allow the department to conduct a field audit of 150 lots in the tree growth program. The audit, he said, would give lawmakers some idea of the scope of the problem.
The Taxation Committee will take up that recommendation and others from stakeholders during a Jan. 24 work session.