Cobscook Shores, a nonprofit organization run by a millionaire philanthropist from New York, has purchased another piece of coastal property in Washington County, the latest in a series of parcels in the area bought by the group over the past eight years.

Cobscook Shores purchased the former Leighton farm, consisting of 25.5 acres along Leighton Point Road and the Pennamaquan River in Pembroke, on Aug. 31, according to real estate records.

Charlie Howe, the Cobscook Shores project manager, confirmed the $420,000 purchase. He said the property will be used for cross country skiing and biking for the organization’s youth program, aimed especially at schools on the north side of Cobscook Bay.

“We’ve grown the youth program substantially this year,” Howe said.

The group’s extensive waterfront park system in Washington County was created by the Butler Conservation Fund, a nonprofit started by New York philanthropist Gilbert Butler.

Cobscook Shores began purchasing land in 2015, and now owns an estimated 1,300 acres in the county. The foundation has made a roughly $5 million investment with at least one land purchase pending, according to Howe.

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He added that the total investment in the Cobscook park system, including costs associated with the system’s outdoor recreation program for local schools, is around $16 million.

This year the program hosted 3,500 student visits, grades K-8, instructing them in paddling, cross country skiing and cycling. Last year the program was the sole physical education program in Lubec schools, which did not have a PE teacher.

The park system is open to the public, Howe said.

“These programs connect directly with the schools and it’s also important for public use of these lands – families in the area are using the trails,” Howe said.

But some local officials have complained their towns are losing thousands of dollars in property tax revenue because Cobscook Shores is a nonprofit that can apply for a tax exemption. For example, the previous owner of the 25.5 acres in Pembroke paid $4,832 a year in property taxes, according to town records.

Daniel Daley, a member of the Lubec select board, has gathered information about nonprofit organizations, including Cobscook Shores and the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, that own land in his town. He hopes to consult with other local towns that lost tax revenue because nonprofits purchased land.

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He blamed incentives put in place by the state government that encourage nonprofits to buy land and take it off the tax rolls.

“Are we just going to be one big park? Is that the game here in Washington County?” Daley asked.

Howe, responding to the criticism, said the loss of tax dollars is a “huge issue.”

“We want to be part of that discussion and help find a solution out of it,” Howe said.

He noted the Cobscook Shores park system attracts visitors, and also said the nonprofit helped pay for airport improvements and a short bike path in the area. “We hope the park system attracting visitors and raising the quality of life supports the local economy,” he said.

Howe also pointed to the youth recreational program that costs the foundation about $93,000 per year – at no cost to the schools or towns.

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In its 2021 federal 990-PF federal tax filing, the most recent year available on ProPublica’s Nonprofit Explorer site, the Butler Conservation Fund contributed $2,000 and Cobscook Shores gave another $17,000 to the town of Lubec.

Cobscook Shores also purchased several parcels in Dennysville in 2022, and owns about 78 acres there, according to county records and Howe.

According to Howe, the Butler Conservation Fund did make a payment to the town of Dennysville to offset tax losses there, although he did not disclose how much.

Most recently, Cobscook Shores purchased 38 acres in Wesley along the East Machias River in January. The group said it will be used for a canoe launch that it says will open in 2024.

The board of directors for Butler Conservation met Monday night in Lubec. According to Howe, among the agenda items was a discussion about 85-year-old Gilbert Butler’s succession plans, including the future of his elaborate park system.

Howe said the board, which does not include any trustees from or living in the Downeast region, will make all decisions regarding the park system after Butler is gone. But Howe said the board has one mindset.

“Our commitment is for essentially 100-year management of the Cobscook Shores park system,” Howe said. “I think that’s something that maybe the public isn’t aware of or gets lost in the debate, but we’re here for the long term.”

This story was originally published by The Maine Monitor, a nonprofit and nonpartisan news organization. To get regular coverage from the Monitor, sign up for a free Monitor newsletter here.

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