GEORGETOWN — Some Georgetown residents are saying state Treasurer Bruce Poliquin’s request to move his 10 acres of waterfront property out of the state’s Tree Growth Tax law is a tacit admission that he should never have been allowed to enroll in a program that has saved him thousands of dollars in property taxes.

Despite that sentiment, the Georgetown Board of Selectmen on Tuesday unanimously approved Poliquin’s application to move his property to a less generous tax abatement program, Open Space, while avoiding punitive Tree Growth withdrawal penalties.

The decision follows several months of debate between the board and several residents who have urged town officials to reject Poliquin’s request and explore options to recover property taxes that other residents absorbed during the eight years Poliquin’s property was enrolled in Tree Growth.

Board chairman Geoff Birdsall defended the decision during about 20 minutes of debate. Birdsall said the amount of taxes the town could recover would be small compared to the potential legal costs Georgetown would incur.

“It could backfire on the town,” Birdsall told about six meeting attendees.

Poliquin’s enrollment in Tree Growth has come under scrutiny following a Democratic-leaning group’s release this earlier this year that showed the state treasurer’s property had been cited in a 2009 report by a legislative task force as a questionable misuse of Tree Growth. It was later revealed that Poliquin’s land contained a deed restriction that largely prohibited him from harvesting timber or engaging in many other forest product activities that are mandated in the Tree Growth law.

The ensuing news reports prompted Poliquin’s critics to claim the treasurer had exploited a 40-year-old tax abatement law that town and state officials believe suffers from lax enforcement and loopholes. However, proof of wrongdoing has been elusive; Poliquin’s 10-year forest management plan is confidential and he has refused to release the document to blunt the accusations.

Additionally, there are a range forest products activities allowed to earn a Tree Growth tax abatement.

However, claims that Poliquin exploited the law were amplified following Poliquin’s request in March to transfer his property from Tree Growth to Open Space. His application was submitted around the same time he launched his campaign for the U.S. Senate.

Resident Rick Freeman told the board Tuesday that he’s convinced Poliquin has abused the law. In a June 20 letter to selectmen, Freeman wrote that the treasurer’s transfer request proved that Poliquin knew “the land should not have been placed in Tree Growth to begin with.”

Freeman said the board’s decision not to further investigate the matter was baffling. He told board members that ratifying Poliquin’s Open Space plan without seeking legal advice effectively closed the door on determining whether the state treasurer had honored the intent of the program or used it as a tax shelter.

Poliquin Tuesday said his decision to transfer the property to Open Space had nothing to do with an inappropriate use of Tree Growth.

“It’s an unfair distraction to Georgetown municipal officials, my neighbors and me. End of story,” he said.

He repeated his claim that the issue was nothing more than a campaign against him by proxies of the Maine Democratic Party unhappy with the reforms he was advancing in Augusta.

The treasurer has paid about $30 a year on the 10-acre parcel since enrolling in Tree Growth in 2004. His exact savings while enrolled in Tree Growth is unclear; Poliquin has refused to disclose the savings and the town has declined to conduct a certified assessment.

However, critics like Freeman believe Poliquin has avoided tens of thousands of dollars in property taxes.

He’ll still receive a significant property-tax break in the Open Space program, approximately 50 percent of his most recent valuation of $943,000.

Before the meeting, Birdsall declined to comment on the matter further except to say that the issue wasn’t a concern for a majority of Georgetown residents and that Poliquin’s political position had brought more attention to the matter than it deserved.

“I think that if this had been any other individual there wouldn’t have been any issue,” he said.

According to meeting minutes from the selectboard’s April 10 meeting, Birdsall said that the real issue was the Tree Growth law itself. Birdsall described the program as far too loose and that it and other abatement programs allowed people to shield themselves from taxes while shifting the tax burden to residents paying the full share.

Most of the meeting attendees agreed on that point.

Codes enforcement officer Robert Trabona said Poliquin may have taken advantage of the law, but he may not have broken it.

Birdsall said, “This is not a winning situation regardless how this goes.”

That sentiment has been shared by other towns, particularly in coastal communities where forest harvesting activities required in Tree Growth would seem limited by topography, geography and other factors.

Recent news reports have cited widespread frustration among municipal assessors who are charged with enforcing the law.

More than 105 coastal towns have properties in the Tree Growth program, representing about 8 percent of total enrollment.

Steve Mistler — 620-7016

[email protected]


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