Tax Battle Stage II
Yesterday I spent the morning with my younger son Than. He and I had dental appointments in Dover-Foxcroft. He's in Bangor this summer so I drove to Bangor to get him, then to Dover-Foxcroft, then back to Bangor. It was afternoon by the time I dropped him off and did a little shopping but I was mulling a thought through my head, had even mentioned it to Than, that I might drive over to Dixmont and see if Jean Hay-Bright is as hospitable as one of her two websites once seemed to indicate. You see, Jean is a busy lady now that Maine Democrats nominated her to run against Maine's famed Senator Olympia Snowe so I wasn't really expecting a warm welcome at Jean's home, a complete stranger walking in with a personal problem like this.
I couldn't have been more wrong. I was almost (almost) literally welcomed with open arms. I don't know what Jean and her husband David would have done with those two hours yesterday afternoon had I not appeared at their door, but what they actually did with it was to spend it helping me focus on this problem. We discussed a few national issues first. She seems well informed and leans heavily in the same direction I'm leaning on most controversial issues. How can you be an organic farmer dreaming of a better tomorrow and not lean in that direction? She and David asked me to run a favor delivering posters and bumper stickers to the Dover-Foxcroft party headquarters. I even went to the extreme of questioning Jean to see if her political ambitions were really serious or just a lark. She assured me that she is very serious and has spent the past year and a half dedicated to this hope.
Then we settled down to discussing the situation I face with my small future farm. We discussed the farm's proximity to the airport and my concerns that aviation fuel lead and potential spraying operations could jeopardize organic farm certification should I ever attempt to be certified. She quizzed me repeatedly to determine how serious I am about keeping the farm and working it as opposed to selling out to the real estate boom to finance my retirement. She offered advice and resources to encourage me to get some commercial production started soon. She even gave me a spare catalog for a company in Indiana from which she and David had ordered two large greenhouse kits which I could see in the distance on the far side of their large garden. David offered me coffee which he then had to brew for me. I refused to "drink alone" sharing a laugh with Jean and David.
I found Jean and David to be as hospitable and as genuine as anyone I have ever met. Both are mature Mainers deeply concerned about the political trend in Washington. But both are real human beings who were willing to set aside everything to help a fellow Mainer with a problem. I thank them both for their generosity and for the many resources they left with me.
Jean pointed out a couple of things that hadn't yet come even close to crossing my mind. Several times in our talk she mentioned that taxes should be based on "current use" and not on what she referred to as "highest and best use." Lacking a notebook myself, Jean jotted this down on a note she prepared for me as I was preparing to leave. I am aware that taxes are based on market value, something often completely divorced from current use. I am also aware that this maximizes tax revenues for the counties, cities and towns in the state. Whenever Jean mentioned highest and best use, I assumed she was talking about this speculative highest market value, but she corrected my thinking on that one time. She asked what makes the town think that the highest market value is the "highest and best use" of my land? Why isn't the "highest and best use" what the land is being used for now? Why would it be better from the perspective of the town's residents for my land to be gated off, posted, mowed, and turned over to some wealthy out-of-stater looking for investment property?
Secondly, Jean got on her computer and within seconds showed me the Maine Land Trust Network website listing dozens of land trusts in Maine, trusts that might possibly serve as the "third party trust" which the tax assessor mentioned if I am to qualify for tax reductions based on public access to open lands. Jean perked my imagination when she found the Friends of Wilson Pond listed there.
I have reached the conclusion that my battle won't be, or at least shouldn't be, with the assessor. He is someone I need to work with rather than against despite the apparent lack of personal concern on his part. I can see that the assessor can't make exceptions based on individual personal needs. What he can do is work with me to find the best way to redefine the highest and best use of my land. He was at my house this morning reviewing his valuation of my home and I took the opportunity to ask him questions about redefining that element of my farm. It is becoming clear to me that nobody recognizes my word as legitimate. I have to find ways within state law to redefine the value of that farm.
The battle continues, but at least I'm beginning to be able to see the squares on the chessboard and I'm beginning to understand how the pieces are used. There may be hope yet.