Purchasing Public Land
(from Maine Townsman, June 1993)
By Jo Josephson, Assistant Editor

Land. Shorefront. Lakefront. So-Called "Open" Space. It's being bought up these days by everyone. Not just the developers. State and local governments are getting into the act as well, as development pressures increase the price faster than funds can be found, as development pressures threaten what in the past everyone took for granted: unlimited access to open space and recreational land.

State Initiatives

The state's recent push for purchasing public lands for conservation and recreation is well documented in the daily press.

By an overwhelming vote, the people of Maine approved a $35 million bond issue in November 1988 to acquire lands of state significance for conservation and recreation purposes.

Since then, the Land For Maine's Future Board, which administers the fund, has spent $10.7 million acquiring over 6,700 acres and nearly 20 shoreline miles ranging from the Mt. Kineo peninsula on Moosehead Lake to 2,100 acres of "classic" Maine coast in Washington County to more than 1,000 acres of blueberry barrens in Kennebunk.

And it is now getting ready to spend an additional $11.7 million to make its largest single purchase to date, a purchase that could add nearly 82 miles of shoreline and 40,000 acres of dense forests and mountain-tops to the state's public lands.

The multi-million dollar deal, which involves Occidental Forest and James River Corp., includes a large tract of land near Baxter State Park and about half a dozen parcels located in various parts of the state.

It's a purchase that is being touted as one of the most "significant land conservation achievements in the history of Maine."

Municipal Initiatives

On a less grand scale, but no less significant, with no comparable deep pockets to dip into, Maine's municipalities are beginning to follow suit, making deals to purchase or protect what little shorefront or other open space that remains available to them in their communities.

Spurred on by their local conservation commissions, their local land trusts, and the directives of Maine's Growth Management Act of 1988, municipalities, which traditionally have favored development over conservation, are beginning to protect valuable land in their communities.

Under the 1988 Growth Management Act, municipalities are to:

—"Encourage the availability of and access to traditional outdoor recreation opportunities, including without limitation, hunting, boating, fishing and hiking; and encourage the creation of greenbelts, public parks, trails and conservation easements;" and

—"Identify and encourage the protection of undeveloped shoreland and other areas identified in the local planning process as meriting such protection."

And protect they are.

...From the Town of Orrington, whose residents are expected to act on a request at their June town meeting to appropriate approximately $40,000 to buy 7.5 acres along the Penobscot River with the idea of developing a waterfront park complete with boat landing and picnic tables.

...To the Town of Naples, whose residents after years of turning down beach purchase proposals at town meeting after town meeting, finally found their backs to the wall as shorefront access for their swimming program went the way of the dinosaur.

This past March, they voted to purchase a one-acre beach front lot, with 100 feet plus on Long Lake at a cost of $200,000.

Newspaper reports quoted one resident as saying the cost of the ten-year bond issue to the average taxpayer per year was the equivalent of "the price of two or three six packs of beer."

...To the Town of Yarmouth, which, according to Town Manager Osmond Bonsey, recognized that the monies in its "Property Acquisition Reserve Fund wouldn't make a dent in the high cost of coastal shorefront property."

After considerable study by the town's Open Space Study Committee, by a vote of 3-1 in March 1989, Yarmouth residents said "yes" to a proposed $1.5 million bond issue to purchase land for open space and recreation.

Municipal Needs

Shorefront property. Be it river, lake or ocean. It's what the towns appear to be buying, mostly.

According to the Recreation, Parks and Open Space Report published in March 1990 by the Community Parks and Recreation division of the Office of Comprehnsive Planning:

—"Almost every Maine community has deficiencies in public land for recreation and open space purposes.

—"Shore acess is considered the highest priority in most communities, but greenways, open space, and recreation facility development are not far behind.

—"While current comprehensive planning under Maine's Growth Management Act will lead to better assessments of the need for open space and recreation in their communities, among the older comprehensive plans already on file at the OCP:

76 percent mentioned the needs that involve the acquisition of land;

47 percent identified shore access needs;

24 percent identified swimming areas;

18 percent mentioned either greenways, tennis courts, town parks or playgrounds;

12 percent mentioned hiking trails, skating areas, boating facilities, waterfront parks, bike paths, rails to trails or renovation of existing facilities;

6 percent identified ballfields, riding paths, playfields, basketball courts, picnic areas and the protection of vistas.

The report, which was mandated by the legislature in 1989 in LD 247 "An Act Regarding Open Space and Recreational Lands under the Growth Management Act," was to advise the Office of Comprehensive Land Use Planning "on the issues and needs for municipalities regarding the acquisition and management of open space and recreation lands".

Space needs aside, among its other findings, the report also noted that at least $3,000,000 yearly for more than 10 years is needed in a state or federal funding program to help meet high priority acquisiton and development requests that will be identified through municipal recreation and open space planning efforts in the next few years.

That said, what are the current major funds available to municipalities. The report highlighted two sources: one federal fund that has been in existence for 25 years, that has seen better years; the other, a state fund, that is currently in want of funds.

Land and Water Conservation Fund

Traditionally the largest source of outside funds available to local governments for the acquisition and development of recreation facilities and open space has been the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF).

But that well appears to be drying up.

Since 1965, municipalities in Maine have received over $19 million from the fund which is currently administered by the Community Parks and Recreation Program at the Office of Comprehensive Planning.

According to John Picher, who directs the program in Maine, the monies were spent on 465 community projects sponsored by 240 municipalities and school districts.

The projects receive up to 50 percent of the cost of acquisition or development of recreation lands.

Picher notes that over the past 25 years, less than $1 million ($865,000) of the $19 million distributed through the fund has been used to acquire land and open space in only 36 projects (that did not involve immediate development of facilities).

Picher says that although the program gives higher priority to acquisition projects than to development projects, in the past municipalities have not requested acquisition projects as often as development.

Communities have told him that the 50 percent funding level was not enough incentive for them to make large investments in land.

Among those municipalities in the past that received funds for land acquisition were the Town of Orono, which received a grant of $45,000 in 1988 for the purchase of 44 acres of open land and the Town of Machiasport which received $21,500 in 1983 for the purchase of Jasper Beach.

Unfortunately, like most other federal funds, the LWCF program has seen better days. In 1979 Maine received $3.2 million; in 1989-90, it received only $165,000.

As a result, of the 15 applications received in 1989, only seven were funded; none were for land aquisition. Towns assisted included Boothbay (creative playground), Caribou (playground), Auburn (school playground), Fort Fairfield (building a municipal pool), Houlton (playground), Harpswell (school playground).

Picher, who has worked for LWCF for the past 15 years and headed it up for the past seven, is optimistic that the funds will increase this year, if for no other reason than it is the 25th anniversary of the fund's founding.

He points to the fact that the House of Representatives Appropriation Committee has recommended a $150 million budget. If that becomes a reality, Maine could receive as much as $1.5 million and the towns could be off and running again.

"I think there is a darn good chance that we could get at least $1 million, unless there is another S & L type catastrophe," says Picher.

Municipal Recreation and Open Space Fund

As far as major state funding for acquisition of public lands by municipalities, it is still a gleam in the eye of some state planners, especially Picher's, whose report proposed the creation of a "state-funded Municipal Recreation and Open Space Fund."

Noting that the $75 million bond issue that was before the legislature when the report was written included $60 million for the Land For Maine's Future Fund for the purchase of significant state lands and $15 million for the purchase of significant local lands, the report recommended that the State Municipal Recreation Fund that was established in 1971 be renamed the Municipal Recreation and Open Space Fund to administer the local portion of the program should the bond issue pass.

As envisioned, the fund would have made grants to assist municipalities in the acquisition of land for open space and recreation uses, with no grant exceeding 80 percent of the approved project cost.

Picher says that although there was a lot of support for the $15 million portion of the bond issue for local land acquisition, it was cut because of the $210 million shortfall that created the so-called budget crisis in the Maine Legislature.

He was hoping that if not $15 million, which would have translated into $3 million a year for five years, that there would have been at least $5 million or $1 million a year for five years.

What came out of committee was a compromise bill that incorporated several bills that in the best of all possible worlds sought a total of $115 million for land acquisition but only wound up with $19 million.

If approved by voters this fall, the $19 million bond issue will be divided between the Land for Maine's Future Board and the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife with no monies going to the Office of Comprehensive Land Use and Planning to fuel up the Municipal Recreation and Open Space Fund.

Bond issues aside, the report also recommended that consideration be given to annual general fund support to the fund as happened between 1971 to 1981; that while "bond monies are an excellent means of initiating a program for acquisition and development of open space and recreational lands, reliable longer term funding may be necessary to allow orderly planning at local and regional levels."

Among other things, the OCP report stated: "The question seems not to be whether money should be allocated to recreation and open space, but how much should be committed and by whom."

Public Support

That public sentiment is in favor of purchasing public lands appears to be growing. It was established with the passage of the $35 million state bond issue in 1988. Now it is facing the question at the local level.

Testing the waters to see how residents feel about spending their tax dollars on purchasing land, many towns, as part of their comprehensive planning process or through their conservation commissions are now posing that question to their citizens.

Earlier this year, residents in Gorham responding to a questionnaire developed by the town's Open Space Conservation Committee said they would be willing to pay slightly higher taxes to preserve open space in their community.

According to newspaper reports, nearly 75 percent said they would be willing to pay a property tax increase of 10 cents for each $1,000 of assessed valuation to raise $50,000 for preservation of open space and 45 percent favored a 20 cent increase in the tax rate.

Creative Financing

While some purchases can be managed with local tax dollars, most cannot be.

As one planner told the TOWNSMAN, "No one entity be it local, state or federal can or should be expected to come up with all of the monies needed."

There has got to be packaging not only of public dollars but of private dollars as well.

And as communities are finding, either by working with the state or private land trusts, a municipality need not own the land outright for it to be protected or for its residents to enjoy.

Packaging Public Funds

A look at the City of Hallowell provides a case study in how one municipality is going about preserving open space in its community in a creative way.

Without dipping too deeply into its own pockets, it has managed to package a variety of public funds to preserve a unique open space in its midst.

This past spring the town was faced with the fact that the 550 acres of woodland surrounding its 134 acre water supply, Jamies Pond, was being sold.

As one resident describes the land around the pond: "You can go out on that land, and feel you are in the deep woods and be only four miles from the state dome."

Home to many moose, the land is a popular place for walking, skiing, snowmobiling, hunting and fishing. The 80-foot deep pond has great fishing potential.

Faced with the stringent requirements of the Safe Water Drinking Act, the water district had plans to locate a new source of water. Plans were to drill a relatively inexpensive well across the river instead of building an expensive plant to filter the water from the pond.

According to Hallowell City Manager Patrick Gilbert, the water district approached the Land For Maine's Future Board to see if they were interested in purchasing the property, offering to sell it to them for $500,000. The land had been appraised at $590,000.

According to Gilbert, the Board said that as the parcel was not of "state significance," in order for it to be considered as one of "local significance," a local contribution of up to 50 percent would be required.

In its guidelines the LMFB states: "The Board considers projects that are of local or regional interest to be significant if they provide waterfront access for traditional uses, quality open space where greenspace is scarce, or regionally significant parklands... The board also intends to request a significant local match for local or regional interest projects."

At that point the city became involved and the mayor put together a 10-member executive committee consisting of representatives from the conservation commission, the park, and recreation department, the water district, the planning board, the community development committee, and the city council to look into the options available to the town.

Instrumental in pulling it all together was Alec Giffen. A member of Hallowell's Parks and Recreation Committee, Giffen is a planner, who was once employed by the Maine State Planning Office.

What the committee and Giffen came up with were three options, which they presented to the residents of Hallowell in the form of a survey.

The three options were:

1) Outright purchase of the site making the city the sole owner. The city would use monies from a $100,000 federally funded revolving loan program and a $400,000 bond issue that would result in approximately a 1 percent increase in taxes or $24 a year on the average home.

2) State purchase of the property, with the city contributing approximately $250,000 ($100,000 in federal grant monies and a $150,000 bond issue). The land would be owned by the state but could be managed by the city with a 20-year renewable lease.

A city bond issue of $150,000 would result in a .4 percent increase in taxes or $9 a year on the average home.

3) State purchase of the property, with the city contributing $100,000 from a federal grant. The area would be owned by the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife as a wildlife management area. No city bond would be required and taxes would not increase.

Residents overwhelmingly went for option number 3, assuming all three options proved feasible. However, if number 1 were the only option, they were pretty evenly split when it came to the city being the sole owner.

The Office of Community Development has given the city the go-ahead to use $100,000 in income from the city's federal Community Development Block Grant Revolving Loan Fund Program. Gilbert says the city will repay 50 percent of the money back over the course of ten years at no interest.

The Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife has said it would participate in the purchase to the sum of $100,000 depending on a number of considerations including passage of the $19 million bond issue this fall.

According to Giffen, "a private citizen has contributed $25,000 and the Land For Maine's Future Board has discussed the project in "concept" and has said it is willing to contribute $275,000, if everything falls into place."

It's not a done deal yet says Giffen, noting that the summer will be used to work out the details.

Giffen notes the task of putting it all together was not an easy one.

"It required putting together a package of people who cared enough to commit the time and attention needed to making it happen," he says. That package included not only the heads of all the relevant city departments and committees, but also the 30 residents who hand delivered some 500 surveys.

As to the many funding sources that comprise the fiscal package, Giffen says,"We have to think of creative ways to make the sums manageable. You can't get one entity to come up with it all."

And above all, says Giffen, you have to be pragmatic, acknowledging that while the city does not own the land or have control over it, what it has managed to do is to preserve a very unique resource in its midst.

Packaging Private Funds With Public Funds

As the Report on Recreation, Parks and Open Space notes: "Many communities unable or unwilling to undertake the entire cost of purchase on their own or are faced with purchases that extend beyond their borders turn joint purchase partnerships with the private sector."

In most cases private sector here means the entity known as the "Land Trust."

Short of public acquisition, as in the case of the land around Jamies Pond or the Naples Beach, land trusts are probably the "best means of preserving open space for public purposes," notes the report.

According to Rupert Neilly of the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, there are currently 59 active land conservation trusts in Maine. Land trusts are being formed at a rate of 8 to 12 per year in Maine. Many are regional in nature, covering particular watersheds or major natural features and some are local.

The typical land trust is a community-based organization, usually set up as a non-profit group which acts in the public interest to acquire property, conservation easements, or other interests in real property for the purpose of enabling public use or benefit from the land.

One of those trusts, the Orono Land Trust, was instrumental back in 1988 in the town's acquisition of 44 acres of undeveloped land located less than a half mile from the center of downtown Orono and within a mile of 600 residences.

It had always been used for skiing and walking, and as far back as 1962 it had appeared as a "buffer zone" in the town's comprehensive plan. Then in 1985, it went on the market for $90,000.

While the town government wasn't convinced that conservation was more economical than development, some residents thought it was and formed a land trust to purchase it and save it from development.

The result was the formation of the Orono Land Trust and the eventual ownership of the land by the Town of Orono.

The Trust was able to raise $45,000 to provide the town with the necessary match in order to receive a $45,000 grant from the Land and Water Conservation Fund in 1988.

While the town owns the property, the Trust, with a corps of volunteers maintains its trails.

According to Sally Jacobs, president of the five-year-old, 100-member Orono Land Trust, it was important for the town to realize that the trust was not trying to stop development, but rather to integrate green space into the development.

Municipal partnerships with private land trusts appear to be increasing. Currently working with a private land trust to acquire local land is Cape Elizabeth.

According to Cape Elizabeth Town Manager Michael McGovem, the town has pledged $50,000 to the fund raising efforts of the Cape Elizabeth Land Trust as the Trust negotiates to purchase 4.5 acres on the shores of one of the few undeveloped freshwater ponds in southern Maine. The town will not own it but will hold an easement on it, says McGovem.

It will cost $150,000 to purchase the site from a private landowner. To date the Trust has raised $45,000 in private donations.

The town's $50,000 comes from monies set aside in a land acquisition fund into which the town over the years has deposited monies from the sale of tax acquired properties. McGovern notes that over the past three years the town has raised $50,000 to $60,000 a year for the fund. This will be the first purchase using fund monies.

McGovern notes that working with the private trust makes sense as it is difficult for a town to negotiate land purchases.

The State has pledged to monitor the pond if it is opened up for public recreation.

Resources

"Guidelines For Participation." Land and Water Conservation Fund. Community Parks and Recreation Division, Office of Comprehensive Planning, State House Station 130, Augusta, Maine 04333. Contact John Picher, 289-6800.

"Strategy and Guidelines For Aquisition." Land For Maine's Future Fund, Maine State Planning Office, State House Station 38 Augusta, Maine 04333. 289-3261.

Listing of local land trusts and background on land trusts. Maine Coast Heritage Trust 167 Park Row, Brunswick, ME, 04011, Contact Rupert Neilly, 729-7366.