SWAN’S ISLAND — Most everyone can agree that habitat and wildlife protection is a good thing.
But converting private lands into conservation property can potentially benefit and hurt the larger community. It can mean that undeveloped land, formerly in private hands, is now open to the general public to enjoy. But it can also mean properties are removed from the town’s tax base, thereby raising other residents’ taxes. And it can reduce the amount of developable land in the community.
Islanders find themselves thinking about these perspectives as land donations to conservation organizations have picked up in recent years. In December, the topic arose during a forum hosted by Maine Coast Heritage Trust (MCHT) regarding two donations in 2012.
“It’s a serious issue because much of the island could be in conservation, at some point,” said resident Donna Wiegle. “We all love this open land. We don’t want to live as though we’re in New York City. But we’re also concerned as taxpayers—how does it impact each person’s tax bill? So it’s a mixed feeling.”
The topic is perplexing, since there’s really nothing anyone can do if a resident wants to donate land for conservation—and everyone recognizes it’s a well-intentioned gesture.
“There might be some good points now, but what about the future?” asked Myron “Sonny” Sprague, who is first selectman but was speaking as a resident. “It looks like a smaller tax base, and people visiting parts of our island that are now natural habitat for wildlife. There must be a better way to do it.”
Kenneth Lemoine Jr. agreed.
“It’s a concern for year-round residents, definitely,” he said. “Taxes are paid by a smaller amount of people. The less land available, the higher the price will go. That means year-round residents have less chance to compete in buying house lots. It’s already difficult here. There are so few places to buy that are affordable.”
According to the town office, MCHT holds seven parcels comprising 228.8 acres; Acadia National Park 30 acres; and U.S. Fish & Wildlife, 37 acres. MCHT also manages conservation easements on 357.6 acres. Another 1,327.8 acres are enrolled by residents in tree growth and open space programs.
The 2012 donations were the most recent.
David Rockefeller Sr. donated 84 acres near Buckle Island, tucked northwest off Swan’s Island. Crossed by an old gravel road to the shore, residents routinely mosey to the harbor to kayak, picnic or harvest clams or worms. Ralph and Liedeke Hagopian donated 73 undeveloped acres on Back Cove, also on the north side, to protect habitat and wildlife.
The December forum was typical of MCHT’s efforts to work with communities for long-term planning, said MCHT project manager Bob DeForrest.
“We try to find out as much about the property as possible before making any decisions,” DeForrest said. “That includes how people currently use the land, and how they might like to.”
In many cases, MCHT also makes payments to the town in lieu of taxes.
“In the case of Swan’s Island, we tried to shoot for 25 percent of previous taxes,” said DeForrest.
Although the amount of land in conservation isn’t huge, residents fear a domino effect.
“Donated land is not gaining by leaps and bounds—yet,” said Sprague. “But over time, they will have a major effect on the tax base and on our year-round population. The revenues lost will have to be paid by the neighbors. Maybe deed restrictions placed on the properties and enforced by the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, under new ownership? My dad used to say, ‘All that glitters is not gold’—maybe he was right.”
Lemoine proposed that a portion of donated lands go to the community to develop for needs such as affordable housing.
“If they’re going give 60 acres, then somewhere there should be five lots on 10 acres that should be affordable to a young couple,” Lemoine said. “If you’re trying to save the woods, that’s fine; I respect that. But the community needs to keep going,” he said.
“If the lobster industry went downhill, this community would be in extremely tough shape. You can’t work at Wal-Mart. There are not a lot of opportunities here, except for fishing. I see this as great intentions, but what worries me is what happens in 50 years—everything in writing, nothing can be changed. Are we going to lose our community because of it? I’m not concerned about me. I’m concerned about my grandchildren.”