Legislature Advances Land Conservation

Maine’s Legislature adjourned early in the morning on Wednesday, July 26, wrapping up seven months of work. While the session began slowly, it picked up momentum in April. Working with the Governor’s office, legislative allies, and partner organizations, the land trust community successfully supported the enactment of numerous bills that will bolster conservation in Maine and set the stage for future initiatives.

LMF Trust Fund

Early this year, MCHT, the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, The Nature Conservancy, and Maine Audubon began working with Governor Mills on a proposal to strengthen the LMF program. In April, the Governor partnered with Senator Teresa Pierce (Cumberland County) to introduce LD 1969: An Act to Expand the Use of Funds to Support Land Conservation. The bill enjoyed strong bipartisan support and was signed into law by the Governor in late June. LD 1969 strengthens the Land for Maine’s Future Program (LMF) in a variety of ways. First, it moves all LMF money into a trust fund, allowing all investment income to be made available for future conservation investments.

 The bill also empowers the LMF Board to establish a competitive grant program to fund stewardship investments on conservation lands. Lastly, LD 1969 is an important initial step toward identifying consistent, long-term dedicated funds for LMF.

Mitigating Renewable Energy Impacts

In the fall of 2022, a group of interested parties including land trusts, the Mills Administration, and members of the state’s solar development industry began meeting to discuss ways to mitigate impacts to wildlife habitat and farmland from renewable energy development. These discussions contributed to the drafting of LD 1881, sponsored by Representative Landry (D-Farmington). Under current law, energy development companies are required to mitigate impacts to wildlife habitat by conserving equivalent lands. LD 1881 adds farmland impacts to the law, clarifies how to calculate habitat compensation, and allows the developer to pay a fee rather than acquiring the land themselves. The fee could then be deposited in the LMF Trust Fund, or another program approved by the state, to maximize public benefits. The legislature enacted LD 1881 in late July and state agencies will soon begin rulemaking to implement the law.

Subdivision Exemption

Prior to this year, a municipality was required to conduct subdivision review when a landowner divided their property three or more times in  a five-year period. There are a handful of exemptions to this law, but not one that excludes land divided for conservation purposes, although  such an exemption exists in the state’s unorganized townships. Working with Senator Pierce, the land trust community introduced LD 596 to amend the municipal subdivision law to exempt conservation parcels. The Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee unanimously endorsed the proposal in April. LD 596 was enacted easily in both bodies and Governor Millis signed it into law in early May.

Future LMF Funding

Since the effort to find on-going LMF funding is going to take time, land trusts and partners worked on a bill to extend the current 4-year/$40 million LMF appropriation to 6-years and $60 million (through 2026). Sponsored by Senator Black (R-Franklin County), LD 1285 received unanimous support in April from the Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry Committee. Unfortunately, the bill was not funded by the Governor and the legislature during the appropriations process. On a more positive note, the Governor and other policymakers have expressed interest in finding ways to address LMF funding needs in 2024.

Nonprofit Sales Tax Exemption

Working with the Maine Association of Nonprofits, land trusts advocated for changes to the state’s sales tax law to extend exemption to all nonprofits; Maine is the only state in the region that requires some nonprofits to pay sales taxes. The land trust community supported two bills in 2023: LD 68 and LD 695, sponsored by Representatives Sachs (D-Freeport) and Kuhn (D-Falmouth) respectively. The former bill calls for blanket sales tax exemption for all nonprofits, while the latter would extend the current exemption to include land trust activities. Neither bill succeeded, but the Administration will be studying the issue this fall and will be reporting findings to the legislature in January.

Changes to State’s Open Space Law

The Nature Conservancy led an effort this winter in partnership with MCHT, Maine Audubon, and the Maine Woodland Owners to promote changes to the state’s Open Space Current Use Tax Law. Sponsored by Representative Boyle (D-Gorham), LD 1648 seeks to streamline the program and build climate change factors into the law’s considerations. The Taxation Committee did not have enough time to work with interested parties to answer some of the technical questions that arose. However, they held the bill over and have asked parties to work together this fall to bring forward an amended version in 2024.

Maine Trails Bond

Early this year, many land trusts joined a large coalition assembled by the Natural Resources Council of Maine in favor of a $30 million bond issue to fund recreational trail development throughout the state. Sponsored by Representative Fay (D-Raymond), LD 1156 received broad initial support by legislators on both sides of the aisle. However, the Governor and the legislature decided to hold off on supporting any bonds in 2023. This and other bond proposals will be considered in 2024.

MCHT’s Land Trust Program will continue to work on these issues in the remaining months of 2023, and will share updates here and in the Infoline e-newsletter once the Legislature begins work in 2024. In the meantime, feel free to contact Public Policy Manager Jeff Romano if you have policy related questions or concerns.