Islanders and others from the length of the Maine coast attended an Oct. 25-26 conference on “The Affordable Coast,” held at the Island Institute in Rockland. The two-day meeting focused on rising property taxes, the lack of affordable housing on islands, and shrinking access to the working waterfront.

The meeting was organized by the Institute in response to concerns about these problems in Maine’s 14 year-round island communities.

Participants reacted favorably to one tax reform idea: a proposed constitutional amendment extending current-use taxation to property owners who “land bank” their homes. The plan is modeled on Maine’s Tree Growth Tax Law, which taxes forest land on its productivity, rather than at the “highest and best” valuation required in most cases.

Those attending the conference didn’t endorse the plan outright, but a straw poll taken near the end of the two-day meeting showed strong support for further investigation into its feasibility. A constitutional amendment requires action by the state legislature and a statewide referendum.

“If we don’t do [tax reform] intelligently, someone else will do it for us,” declared the conference’s keynote speaker, state Sen. Peter Mills (R-Farmington), a member of the legislature’s taxation committee. Mills described several reform proposals currently under discussion, including a statewide property tax cap (“dangerous,” Mills said); a plan put forth by the Maine Municipal Association that would require Maine to fund 55 percent of local education (“chasing an ephemera”); and a plan he co-authored with a group calling itself Eco-Eco that would replace the sales tax with a gross receipts tax, allow differential property tax valuations for seasonal real estate, increase the “circuit breaker” to protect moderate-income homeowners against leaping tax valuations, and repeal the current homestead exemption.

“The wealth of this state is in its real estate,” Mills pointed out, disagreeing with those who would fund more services through the state income tax. That tax, he noted, is already one of the highest in the country.

Much of the conference’s first day was devoted to a discussion of property tax mechanics with David LeDew, Supervisor of Municipal Services in the Maine Bureau of Revenue Services. “Essentially,” he explained, “the property tax is a state tax,” with rules spelled out under state law. The property tax has the advantage of being predictable from year to year, he said – the sales tax and the income tax will vary according to the condition of the economy, while the property tax can be counted on to provide municipalities and schools with a steady source of income.

The problem, he acknowledged, is that “in real dollars,” property taxes have escalated tremendously” since the 1970s. “But as a percentage increase of [property] values, “they have been relatively flat.”

LeDew attended the conference to explain how the system works, not to advocate any particular reform. However, he did offer some advice to the islanders: “anything you come up with should be helpful and useful in the Abbots as well as the Portlands,” he said, referring to small towns such as Abbot in Piscataquis County, where valuations of lakefront property have escalated, and Portland, Maine’s largest city, which suffers from a chronic shortage of money for increasingly costly services.

Any reform plan must also be clear, he added. “Define what you mean by ‘affordability.’ ”

Philip Conkling, president of the Island Institute, addressed the group at the start of the conference’s second day. “The pressure [on the coast and islands] is not going to go away,” Conkling said, recalling his conversation with a new North Haven landowner who, having paid a high price for his handsome property, ‘said it was far cheaper than Nantucket.'”

“There will be more and more of that kind of property transaction occurring,” Conkling predicted. “That’s why we’re here today.” He urged participants “to tell us [at the Island Institute] what messages need to get out.”

The second day’s sessions focused on property taxes and assessments, the lack of affordable housing and the need to protect working waterfront from inappropriate development.

Boopie Doughty, owner of 22 acres on Chebeague, said her taxes were $11,000 annually. “We’ve got to come up with a way to keep communities going,” she said, pointing to errors in valuations and problems Chebeaguers have had in dealing with the mainland town of Cumberland, of which the island is a part. “The system is wrong,” she said. “We’ve got to try to begin to make changes in the constitution to enable people to stay put.”

The conference’s organizers and participants wanted to focus on solutions instead of complaints, and much of the day’s discussion centered on ways islands have confronted their different problems. Peaks Island sold a building to the City of Portland and put the money into an endowment that helps provide health services. In addition, Volunteers of America is helping build low income senior housing on the island. Great Cranberry needed a gas station, and its Island Futures Group got that job done. “We had the advantage of cooperation between the summer and winter communities,” said island resident Barbara Stainton.

On Cliff Island, according to landowner Roger Berle, the need for affordable housing “clashes head on” with the need for open space. Cliff has land it could use for housing, Berle said, but so far it has not acted.

The Monhegan Island Sustainable Community Association helps year-round residents stay on that island. The group is now buying its first building and hopes to create space in it for two families and a store downstairs. Anyone who buys a house from the community association, said Alice Boynton, must sell back to the organization at a fixed price. Monhegan also has a community land trust and a teacher housing fund.

At the end of the second day a discussion of waterfront access elicited a number of ideas. Swan’s Island is in the process of buying 10 acres to preserve community access. Chebeague residents asked about zoning a particular area so fishermen will have access to the shore, and Jim Connors of the State Planning Office advised them to investigate creating a “water-dependent use zone.” Connors noted the importance of local action to solve access problems, pointing to the Cranberry Isles’ recent initiative to purchase a parking lot in Southwest Harbor, and the purchase of a former marina on Westport Island by a group of lobster fishermen there.