Public Land Purchases: A Sweet Deal or a Maine Taxpayer Rip-off?

R.O. Voight

April 04, 1999

There are multiple enveloping thrusts to purchase private land and turn it into public land all over the State of Maine. The pressure is mounting on many fronts. There are two bond issues in the State Legislature for $100 million and $120 million, respectively, for acquiring private property. There is the Governor's request for $50 million for the Land for Maine's Future Board. There is the constant enviro pressure for the 3.2 million acre National Park. There is HR 701 and S-25 at the federal level, setting aside billions of dollars for acquisition of land, and the Northern Forest is specified as number one priority.

The Nature Conservancy just purchased 185,000 acres in Western Maine from International Paper Inc., which in effect makes it "public" land. IP has another 240,000 acres for sale. Now we hear that the Governor has cut a deal with Plum Creek for 65 miles of lake frontage, again with the idea of "saving" it for the Maine public. How much is enough?

The "deal" with Plum Creek involves 14 miles of shore frontage on Flagstaff Lake, as a 500 foot strip. The 500 foot strip goes from high water mark inland. There are also numerous small islands with one large island in Flagstaff Lake. Included in the deal are 29 miles of frontage on the eastern side of Moosehead Lake, with two islands. The total frontage of islands in both lakes is 7 miles. And there is 7.5 miles of frontage on Kennebec River with a 250 foot strip on each side of the river. If you measure both sides of the river you get a total of 65 miles of frontage.

David Guernsey, a Kingfield resident, who owns 100 acres and a camp on Flagstaff Lake, has this to say about the deal: "The Flagstaff land is on the upper end of a reservoir and is more often than not separated from the water by as much as a quarter mile of mud flat. Thus boating from that frontage is hardly possible. There are no public roads or power lines within five miles. Scott Paper Co. tried to develop the land some time back and then abandoned the effort.”

Guernsey goes on, "Since that time LURC has regulated the land to the point of virtual worthlessness. Flagstaff is zoned 'Management Class 2' which means that a building within 500 feet of the lake requires an entire mile of frontage. Road cost alone makes the development impractical. In addition, LURC rules require that an approved development must be adjacent to an existing development, further destroying the value of the Flagstaff land. Any building must be set back in the woods with no view. LURC forestry regulations are so strict along the lakes that the land may have little value as forest land either. Yet our State seems bent on spending millions of dollars for such property."

Guernsey continued, "The deal involves the Trust for Public Lands, one of the land sharks of the super wealthy environmental complex. In 1980 the Trust made a $311,000 profit by owning two parcels in the Northwest for one minute before selling it to the federal government. A subsequent Inspector General Audit Report uncovered millions of dollars of such non-profit profiteering in federal land deals. What profit does this non-profit expect from this Maine deal?"

The "deal" turns out to be more complicated than it has appeared. The TPL bought 15,000 acres from Central Maine Power in Bowtown Township last December (1998). This was stated by Erin Rowland of the TPL. Then TPL is going to trade the 15,000 acres to Plum Creek for the 65 miles of shore frontage, plus a 4,000 acre piece on Mount Abraham that borders the Appalachian Trail. "Essentially, the State will reimburse us for the cost of purchasing the Bowtown parcel," said Rowland.

Now, we find out in calling the Bureau of Taxation, there has been no sale of the Bowtown property. If the Bowtown parcel is compared to other sales of forest land, it should bring about $200 an acre or $3,000,000.

But TPL apparently only has an option to purchase, and will only close when the Legislature has approved the Governor's requested $5.26 million.

Some questions immediately arise. How much is the Bowtown parcel to be purchased for? What is the breakdown of the appraised value of the 65 miles of frontage plus the 4,000 acre piece? What value should the State legislature approve for this "deal"?

And these questions raise the basic principle involved in all State land purchases? How far do we go? How much state owned public land is enough?

The State already owns over 1,100,000 acres, or slightly over 5% of the entire state land. There are problems with managing this present amount, in terms of qualified people and available budget dollars. Should we take on more responsibility, when we are having problems managing what we have?

The people of Maine should have the major voice in these decisions. After all, it is their private land that is being turned into "public" land. Mainers have owned this land for over 200 years, and it is their pride and management that has led to it being so valuable, so preserved, so well needed, so desired by the enviro community.

Private property is and has been the touchstone of the independent spirit, the source and strength of character of the Maine people. We should respect and guard this principle above all else.

Looking at the Governor's proposal for 65 miles of frontage, in and of itself, would not be a purchase met with serious objections, as long as the price is valid. However when placed in the context of all the other purchases, the pressures to acquire millions and millions more acreage, the vast environmental complex with its unlimited budget, you must look at this one also, with a jaundiced eye.

What limits are we looking at on land purchases in Maine? When is enough, enough?

R.O. "Bob" Voight is a founding member of the Maine Conservation Rights Institute.

"Courtesy of Scott Fish, AsMaineGoes.com."