November 21, 2012

Land for Maine's Future board presses Gov. LePage to release bond funds

Governor refuses to borrow money voters approved for land acquisitions

By North Cairn ncairn@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Alarmed by the prospect of losing projects to protect vast acreage of forests, farms, waterways and beaches from development, board members of the state's Land for Maine's Future program are calling on Gov. Paul LePage to release bond funding voters approved as long as five years ago.

Paul LePage
click image to enlarge

Paul LePage

Portland Press Herald file photo by Pat Wellenbach

Earlier this week, at their first meeting in six months, board members said they will request a meeting with LePage to try to convince him that the bond-funding dam should be dismantled, their money released and the land deals completed.

LePage announced last summer that he would not begin the process of bond borrowing before January 2014, a decision that has created a problem for several communities and agencies that have development or conservation contracts about to be finalized. In some cases, contracts have had to be delayed and projects that already had been started have been stopped.

As of Wednesday, no formal request from the board had been received by the governor's office, said Adrienne Bennett, press secretary and director of communications for LePage. But she confirmed that for now LePage is unlikely to change his mind.

"Bonds have been something that's been on the governor's radar," Bennett said. But "at this time I don't anticipate that the governor is going to sell the bonds," she added.

The LMF, which was established in 1987, operates under the Department of Conservation and is the state's main agency for acquiring public land for preservation. Its activities are governed by a board of six public members, appointed by the governor and approved by the legislature, and the commissioners of the state's three natural resources departments.

Some of the land the LMF acquires comes through easements, but much is financed by bond sales. Matching funds from federal programs and agreements with private citizens who choose to set aside land for the state also help.

LMF has "enough money to close (on) some of the projects, but not all," said board member Ben Emory of Bar Harbor. The agency has committed to funding more than 20 land projects at a cost of nearly $7 million but has only about $4.7 million to work with. The control of funds to cover the remainder of its approved and anticipated projects is under LePage's control, and he "has been just unbudging" about releasing the money, said Emory.

The LMF board, which reviews proposals from various sources for protected land purchases, forecasts that it will be short at least $2 to $3 million on already-approved projects within a couple of months. The sale of bonds to cover these and many future land proposals has been authorized by voters. But use of the money is stymied by LePage.

Without access to the money generated by those bonds, LMF cannot complete deals for a variety of projects. At a meeting this week, the board acknowledged that land acquisitions that could be in jeopardy are scattered across the state, leaving virtually no area untouched.

Specific imperiled projects include the Scammon Farm in Topsham, Randall Orchard in Cumberland County, Androscoggin Greenway in Canton and Jay, Pleasant Bay Wildlife Management Area in Addison, and working forest projects such as Crocker Mountain in Franklin County and West Grand Lake Forest in Washington County.

"The board's in a pretty tough position," said Tom Abello, senior policy advisor for the Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit organization which is often an applicant for LMF funds. LePage's position "makes things pretty murky" for moving ahead on authorized projects, he said.

With the money from the bond sales, matching funds from federal sources may dry up, or the participating parties will have to seek extensions of at least a year, Abello said.

"What would a 12-month delay do to them?" he said. It might be workable for some projects or purchases, but it would leave others "in some sort of limbo" that could have "very negative consequences."

The bond approvals will run out in 2015, but Bennett said the governor "won't let these bonds expire."

In the meantime, she said, the LMF and organizations that support it need to pursue other alternatives through "out-of-the-box-type thinking" to deal with the funding gap." In some cases, communities have gotten the state to provide promissory letters to keep projects on track.

Less than 10 percent of Maine is publicly owned -- a relatively low perrcentage among states. Since the late 1980s, Maine voters have approved more than $100 million of bonds for land purchases and conservation.

More than 445,000 acres have been conserved through the LMF program. Nearly a thousand miles of waterfront land have been preserved, along with 150 miles of recreational trails revived from abandoned rail line corridors, five state and regional parks expanded and nearly 20 working farms conserved. One hundred eighty-nine land conservation projects have been completed throughout all 16 counties in the state.

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