AUGUSTA — Every year since 1984, a surveyor from the Nature Conservancy walks the 10-acre coastal property off Ledgemere Road in Georgetown to make sure the landowner isn’t cutting down too many trees.
The annual survey and the tree-cutting provision is enshrined in a deed restriction, part of a 1984 land deal between the Nature Conservancy and Richard and Constance Porter.
When State Treasurer Bruce Poliquin bought the property in 2001, he inherited the restriction. According to Tom Abello, a policy adviser at the Nature Conservancy, Poliquin has honored the terms of his deed. With the exception of a storm blow-down a few years ago, trees have not been removed from the property, Abello said.
The deed restriction appears to conflict with the purpose of Maine’s Tree Growth Tax Program, in which Poliquin enrolled 10 acres in 2004. The 40-year-old tax law is designed to bolster the state’s forest products industry by giving significant tax breaks to landowners in exchange for sustainable, commercial timber harvesting.
The treasurer’s political opponents have highlighted the conflict between the deed restriction and the goals of the Tree Growth program, suggesting that the treasurer has exploited the program as a tax shelter. Members of the group Maine’s Majority, which was first to publicize the issue, are expected to show up at Thursday’s Georgetown Board of Selectmen meeting and press town officials about it.
However, no one knows whether Poliquin is honoring the terms of his timber management plan — which is mandatory under the Tree Growth program — except the treasurer himself, who has declined to talk about it.
But he doesn’t have to. Although the Tree Growth program can give a landowner a substantial tax break, the landowner’s forest management plan is confidential, sealed by the Maine Forest Service. And while the Forest Service certifies the plans, it is not involved in enforcing them.
Enforcement falls to town assessors, who can request from the Forest Service technical advice about the Tree Growth program and additional information about management plans. Geoff Herman, with the Maine Municipal Association, which represents Maine towns and cities, said assessors are reluctant to take enforcement steps, despite potentially losing thousands of dollars in property taxes.
“A lot of assessors don’t want to get involved because they’re not foresters, they’re assessors,” Herman said.
Geoff Birdsall, chairman of the Georgetown Board of Selectmen, hinted at another reason towns don’t jump in. Asked whether the Georgetown board planned to ask the Forest Service for details about Poliquin’s management plan, Birdsall said the town would probably wait until 2014 when Poliquin’s 10-year plan is up for review by the state.
“Given the nature of this, I think there would be some retribution if we were to single (Poliquin) out,” Birdsall said. “If we’re going to take a look at Tree Growth, we need to take a look at all of them. We can’t single people out based on personality or political opinions.”
Georgetown has 15 properties enrolled in Tree Growth, Birdsall said. Some landowners, he said, have expressed concern to him that the Poliquin matter would lead to unfair scrutiny of their management plans.
Potential problems with Tree Growth are hardly confined to Poliquin, or to Georgetown. 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.
Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, said recently that he was glad the Legislature was taking steps to address the issue, but he worried they may not go far enough.
For example, it remains to be seen whether Raye’s bill addresses an issue raised by Poliquin’s deed restriction: Despite thousands of dollars in potentially lost property tax revenue, no one checked Poliquin’s deed — and its Nature Conservancy cutting restrictions — before he enrolled in the Tree Growth program.
No one is required to.
Town assessors are responsible for administering and signing off on forest management plans. They are not required to check a landowner’s deed for possible restrictions that would make tree harvesting difficult.
Donald Mansius, of the Maine Forest Service, said property deeds — public documents — are not considered by the foresters who certify the plans.
Raye was taken aback when told about Poliquin’s deed restriction and his enrollment in Tree Growth.
“On its face it doesn’t seem to be in the spirit of the Tree Growth program,” Raye said. “That certainly raises eyebrows.”
Numerous attempts by the Sun Journal to get comment from Poliquin over the past two weeks have been unsuccessful.
Abello, with the Nature Conservancy, said his organization has conservation restrictions with many landowners enrolled in Tree Growth, about 250,000 acres statewide. About 185,000 acres of that is along the St. John River where J.M. Huber does frequent commercial harvesting. However, the restrictions on those properties are different from the ones that exist on Poliquin’s.
Advocates of Tree Growth point to the latter as evidence that the program doubles as an economic development and conservation tool.
“I think it’s important to recognize that, for the most part, Tree Growth is very, very successful,” Raye said. “That said, I think it’s important to find out if there are problems with the program, so as not to ruin it for those who are using it properly.”