Land trusts are part of the fight against climate change, the executive directors of two Maine land trusts boldly claim in a recent Maine Voices commentary.

The authors offer no evidence for their statement in the Nov. 6 column. One wonders, how much climate relief does each sequestered acre of their land provide? It becomes a matter of strongly held opinions, not established facts. But land trusts, whether or not they do anything to prevent climate change, have other problems in the towns in which they exist.

They gobble up taxable land and decrease the tax base wherever they exist, thereby causing an increase in the taxes of those residents and other land-owning entities that are not tax-exempt. By and large, this is done under the public radar. No one announces to the taxpaying public that “Oops, we have just removed ‘X’ number of acres from the town tax base, and your taxes will be increased by ‘Y,’ as a result!” There is no chance for taxpayers to vote “yea” or “nay” on this “stealth tax,” which will affect them Some might call it “taxation without representation.”

We may love the open, undeveloped land and its impact on our environment, but it doesn’t come free of charge. We are never asked, Do the majority of taxpayers want it? Or, “This is what it will cost you on your tax bill. Do you still want it?” To truly benefit their communities, land trusts need more voter awareness of any and all proposals for their expansion through gifts and land purchases. The tax implications for those who pay taxes need to be announced before they are a fact, not after, and there is a need for full community decision-making about how to proceed.

There is also the problem of how much tax-exempt land is enough. Is there a quantitative boundary for this venture? For example: This particular municipality allows no more than – pick a percentage – 20 percent, 30 percent, 40 percent, 50 percent, etc. – of tax-exempt land. And there are the inevitable political problems as tax-exempt land as a percentage of all land in town gets bigger and bigger. Size of holdings is power. What municipal services do they require? At the very least: fire protection and policing. What happens to municipal oversight of now-private property? And at what cost to taxpayers?

There is another rarely mentioned problem: fire hazard. Trusts commonly want to hold their woodland pristine and untainted by land management, lumber harvesting and the like. The result is increasing fire hazard to the unmanaged land and to its abutters. California is a poster child for this problem of out-of-control forest fires on unmanaged land, and, once these fires start, the pollution hazard from smoke and ash is widespread for miles beyond the actual fire site – and frequently drifting onto other states. Careful land management, culling weak and dead timber, is an important preventive step that benefits everyone and ought to be applied to all woodland, including the tax-exempt land trusts.

Payment in lieu of taxes programs are one attempt by municipalities to collect revenues to partially cover lost taxes. Usually they are a mere fraction of the actual assessed taxes paid by those who are not tax-exempt. There is some potential here to increase these payments as the tax-exempt base grows, in order to have a deterrent effect on growth beyond certain defined parameters, but this is just a concept for now.

Land trusts might be a part of the fight against climate change, but that conversation is far from over, and those who want public accountability have just started to speak.

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