AUGUSTA — A group that has actively opposed Gov. Paul LePage is raising questions about whether State Treasurer Bruce Poliquin has exploited a 40-year-old conservation law as a tax shelter.
Maine's Majority on Wednesday released several documents showing that 10 acres of Poliquin's 12.3-acre waterfront property in Georgetown are enrolled in Maine's Tree Growth tax relief program. The program, adopted in 1972, gives landowners significant property-tax discounts in exchange for adopting sustainable timber-harvesting methods.
Poliquin in 2004 enrolled 10 acres of the Georgetown property in the tree growth program and has since received an estimated annual tax break of $5,000. According to county tax records, the assessed value of his property in 2004 went from $1.77 million to $725,000 after enrolling in the program.
Poliquin's property was identified in a 2009 report by the Maine Forest Service as an example of potential misuse of the tree growth program. The study was commissioned by the Legislature, which had hoped to address instances in which some landowners enrolled in the management program and reaped the tax benefits but didn't harvest timber.
The issue has come up this session. Three bills attempt to address misuse of the program. One is sponsored by Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry.
According to the 2009 Forest Service report, there was no demonstrated timber harvesting on Poliquin's property. Almost all of the 10.3 acres also falls under the state's shoreland zoning regulations, which means harvesting would be strictly regulated. The report said the shoreland zoning rules had no bearing on the property's eligibility for tree growth.
Although Poliquin's property was identified in the report, tax records show the parcel is still in tree growth. The study notes that the town of Georgetown had not requested the state's assistance in the matter.
Jeanne Curran, a spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Conservation, said local tax assessors were responsible for reporting potential landowner violations of the tree growth program. The Forest Service, she said, provided only technical and educational assistance.
In April 2011, the Forest Service sent letters to Poliquin and other landowners enrolled in the tree growth program, reminding them that the program required landowners to grow and harvest trees for commercial use and to adopt and follow a forest management plan.
Georgetown municipal offices were closed Wednesday.
Poliquin did not respond to calls for comment.
Goergetown Board of Selectmen Chairman Geoffrey Birdsall said there had been no discussion among board members about Poliquin's potential misuse of the program or no municipal action had been taken.
Lawmakers are well-acquainted with the enforcement issues of the tree growth law. Raye noted during his presentation of LD 1470 last month that he had seen and heard accounts of landowners who had shown no sign or intention of timber-harvesting their land in the tree growth program. However, Raye said, the scope of the problem was unclear.
Others who testified said the problem appeared to occur mostly with landowners in coastal areas who also comply with shoreland zoning. Poliquin's property is on a peninsula.
The Maine Municipal Association has frequently complained about the difficulties of enforcing the tree growth program. In the 2009 report, the MMA noted that the confidentiality of landowners’ forestry plans makes it difficult for local officials to determine whether landowners are honoring the terms of their agreements with the Forest Service.
"It is very unfortunate that local and state policymakers are unable to more publicly review the language of forestry plans and engage in a public discussion regarding how loosely these plans can be written and how ambiguously these plans can describe what actions may or may never be taken by the landowner," the MMA noted. "Forestry plans can be written so as to make them entirely unenforceable."
In part because of that ambiguity, there is some question about whether Poliquin's enrollment in tree growth runs counter to the intent of the program.
Poliquin made several attempts to reduce his property tax prior to enrolling in the program.
Poliquin bought the property in 2001 for $1.7 million. In 2003, the value of the property climbed to $2.9 million after Poliquin razed existing structures and built a 6,444-square-foot house and other buildings.
In January 2004, Poliquin asked the town to reduce his tax assessment by more than $1.1 million. The abatement was denied, as was Poliquin's appeal to the Sagadahoc County commissioners.
Later that year, Poliquin enrolled the majority of his property in the tree growth program.
Chris Korzen, director of Maine's Majority, said in a statement, "There is considerable doubt whether Treasurer Poliquin is following the letter and intent of Maine's Tree Growth law."
He added, "What is clear is that he will do anything to avoid paying his taxes. Over the years, the people of Georgetown have lost out on tens of thousands of dollars that could have been used to pay for roads, bridges and schools. All this because Bruce Poliquin doesn’t want to contribute his fair share."
The outspoken Republican treasurer has been targeted by Maine Democrats.
Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, recently asked the Attorney General's Office to rule on whether Poliquin violated a provision in the state Constitution designed to limit the state treasurer's business dealings while he or she is responsible for the state's Treasury.
The Maine Democratic Party also filed a complaint with the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices, alleging that Poliquin failed to disclose his business income.
Both actions relate to Poliquin's ownership of Dirigo Holdings LLC and Popham Beach Club. Poliquin recently made headlines over his request to expand the activities at the club. The Phippsburg Board of Selectmen recently approved the request. Dirigo Holdings also owns Popham Woods, a housing development in Phippsburg.
Those allegations follow Poliquin's frequent criticism of the Maine State Housing Authority and the state's borrowing practices under Democratic control.