When filtered through the lens of a photographer, reality can take on a different hue, which by design challenges the perception of the viewer. Pictures of worn and decrepit structures throughout rural Maine have been filtered and presented as idyllic beautiful art for a collector to hang on the wall, finding visual satisfaction. The reality of those pictures tells a different story for those who live in the surrounding region.
Rural Maine, Small Town Maine, and Farm Town Maine, are slowly decaying into their own landscape. The greater sadness is that the factors to their demise are beyond the control of Small Town Maine. No, this is not even the tale of little communities who cannot keep up with the changing times or technologies; but instead, is the story, to often told in Maine, of bureaucratic government’s abuse, corruption, and overreach and the cowardice of those, who should, to curtail it.
It’s the story of Atkinson, Maine. The farming community that I live in. It’s a story that could be rewritten into the borders of every little town in North Central Maine and very little of the plot would be changed.
At last census, Atkinson had 326 people who resided here. That number now is in the mid 200’s. In comparison to the wildlife and dairy cattle, humans are clearly in the minority in Atkinson.
But the hay fields, farm lands, streams, and timber lands of this community has become ground zero for the subversive tactic of choice by leftist environmental groups. These groups have hijacked tax windfall programs designed to benefit farmers and timber harvesters in the state of Maine. These groups and individuals have bought up large tracts of land and put them into programs which are tax free or nearly tax free, rendering nearly 75% of Atkinson’s land virtually nontaxable.
This has driven the mil rate of a town with less than 300 (less than that pay taxes) to 23.5. Couple the non-existent tax revenue with ever burgeoning school budgets in an under performing school district, and you have recipe for the slow painful death of a little town. Small Town Maine,bound and helpless, led to its demise.
Atkinson has more land in Open Space conservation than all of the towns in Aroostook County combined. Northeast Wilderness, out of Montpelier, Vt., holds 6000 acres in conservation easements, along with one individual, who owns 10,000 acres in easements, the Alder Stream Preserve, and plans to turn over his land to North East Wilderness. The State of Maine and the Bud Leavitt Preserve holds another 1000 acres in tax exempt status.
Some of these lands were at one point put into a program called Tree Growth. This was a program designed to give tax incentives to large paper companies such as Great Northern and International Paper in an effort to encourage them to stay in our State and continue to employ and boost our forestry industry. A requirement for Tree Growth is to have a working harvesting plan, yet many of these conservation groups have no such plan or fail to implement them.
Our state has over-regulated our forestry and farming industry until it is nearly gone. These tax incentives were given to those industries with an understanding of an economic trade off that benefited our state’s economy. No such trade off exists with environmental groups who are exploiting these land trust plans to benefit their agenda.
Atkinson decided to fight back in the only way it could, by deorganizing. It has been a long arduous process which has resulted in no good answers for anyone, but with also little choice for Atkinson. I would draw imagery of David and Goliath except David wins in his story.
Suffice to say, the withdrawal/deorganization process is legalized extortion. I will address this in another column. As with all of the Small Town Maine, Atkinson is the victim of a government and bureaucracy that is unwilling to reform its practices.
Because the people of Atkinson have voted to withdraw, in retaliation the single landowner of 10,000 acres has obtained permits to put all of his land into Open Spaces, which cannot be taxed. Programs, which were designed to encourage job growth, are being used as political bludgeons on rural Maine. Of the 23,000 acres of land in Atkinson, 17,000 cannot be taxed to the benefit of the town, the tax burden is shifted to the few remaining landowners who pay taxes. With a predicted rise in mil rate to 28, these few small landowners are effectively subsidizing the abuses of wealthy land barons.
The fault lies with a government that turns a stone ear to the plight of its rural towns. These processes must be reformed. Out of state groups and land barons cannot be given a free hand to destroy the economies of Small Town Maine, while at the same time operating at the expense of those same towns. Augusta needs to start working for and listening too Small Town Maine.