GEORGETOWN — The Board of Selectmen indicated Thursday that it would likely evaluate all of the town properties enrolled in a 40-year-old tax law, not just the one owned by State Treasurer Bruce Poliquin.
The board took no official action. Chairman Geoff Birdsall said the board would “probably” take steps to make sure landowners were complying with the Maine Tree Growth Tax Law, a program that gives landowners significant tax breaks in exchange for adopting sustainable tree harvesting.
However, Birdsall said, the town shouldn’t scrutinize only Poliquin’s waterfront property on Ledgemere Road. The town has 10 lots enrolled in the tree growth program.
However, Poliquin’s property has garnered the most attention. Political opponents have questioned whether the Republican treasurer has exploited the law as a tax shelter.
The state treasurer in 2004 enrolled a little more than 10 acres in the program, yet his property has a deed restriction that appears to severely limit his ability to harvest timber.
Poliquin has remained mum on the issue. His timber management plan, certified by the Maine Forest Service and approved by Georgetown in 2004, is confidential.
The Forest Service does not enforce the plan. That is up to the town, which to this point, has declined to ask the state for more details to see whether Poliquin is complying with his plan.
His property was cited in a 2009 legislative study as a potential violator of the tree growth program.
The Thursday board meeting was sparsely attended. One resident, A. Myrick Freeman III, a Bowdoin College professor, asked selectmen to take action against Poliquin. Freeman said Poliquin was abusing the tree growth program.
Freeman noted that Poliquin’s deed restriction included a covenant from the Nature Conservancy that prevented the treasurer from commercially harvesting trees.
The deed reads, “Trees may be thinned only for the purposes of view, and the environment shall be completely protected at all times from the excessive cutting of trees.”
Municipalities and the Forest Service are not required to check landowners’ deeds before enrolling them in tree growth.
Freeman asked the board if it knew about the covenant.
Board member William Plummer IV, who was the chairman at the time Georgetown approved the plan, said he didn’t remember.
“(Poliquin) could very well be on the up-and-up,” Plummer said. “He could be allowed to harvest.”
Birdsall and board member Dolores Pinette said they didn’t want to single out Poliquin.
“It might behoove the town to evaluate all of the lots that are in Tree Growth to see if they are all in compliance,” Birdsall said. “I would not want to do something rash or off the cuff.”
Poliquin did not attend the meeting. Freeman was the only Georgetown resident to speak during the public comment period.
Birdsall told the Sun Journal this week that he didn’t plan to ask the Forest Service for details about Poliquin’s management plan, adding that the town would probably wait until 2014 when Poliquin’s 10-year plan is up for review by the state.
Tree Growth is often heralded as a successful program that bolsters the state’s forest products industry while doubling as a conservation tool. However, municipal officials, particularly on the coast, have often cited problems with the program.
The Legislature each session deals with several bills attempting to change the law or beef up enforcement. The Legislature’s Taxation Committee on Wednesday unanimously endorsed one such bill. The proposal, sponsored by Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry, would direct the Forest Service to perform an annual, random survey of properties in tree growth to check for conformance and report to the Legislature. The survey sunsets in 2014.
The bill appears to focus the Forest Service’s efforts on waterfront properties. Raye said this week that’s because most of the complaints he hears about tree growth occur in coastal towns where it seems unlikely that a landowner can commercially harvest timber while adhering to shoreland zoning standards.
Landowners exploiting the program, he said, also unfairly push the property tax burden inland on residents with modest homes.