CUMBERLAND, Maine — The LePage administration is still refusing to release more than $11 million worth of voter-approved bond money, earmarked for land conservation projects across the state, until lawmakers approve the governor's proposal regarding timber harvesting on state land.
Conservationists say they are frustrated by the political card game, which they say is holding up the works on some important preservation agreements, and they're turning up the heat on LePage to release the funds.
The Knight's Pond-Blueberry Hill preserve is a 215-acre parcel of land straddling the suburban southern Maine communities of Cumberland and North Yarmouth. Although privately owned, members of the public have long enjoyed access to the area. With a 46-acre pond, a network of trails and a forested hillside, it's a favorite spot for many local residents, including Janet Lynch.
"This is just a gem, an absolute gem," she says.
And it's gem under the threat of development — as evidenced by splashes of blue paint on the occasional tree.
"You'll notice around the property a lot of the trees are marked with blue paint, so the property was going to be cut and sold to developers, there was a real estate agent hired and we stepped in just in time," Penny Asherman of the Chebeague & Cumberland Land Trust explains.
Asherman was among those gathered at the edge of Knight's Pond Monday morning to draw attention to the threat posed to this and other land conservation projects across the state.
She says the landowner has agreed in principle to sell to the two local municipalities, who plan to operate the area as public parkland.
As part of that deal, three land trusts have teamed up with concerned local residents to raise more than $1 million between them to purchase the property.
Democratic state Sen. Cathy Breen says all that's needed for the sale to be finalized is the $225,000 of bond money allocated to the project as part of the Land for Maine’s Future, or LMF, program.
But that money won't be forthcoming, she says, until Republican Gov. Paul LePage signs off on it.
"It's now time for Gov. LePage to follow through on Maine voters commitment for conservation and to issue the Land for Maine's Future bonds," Breen says.
Conservationists say Knight's Pond is one of about three-dozen projects totaling 50,000 acres that are in jeopardy because of LePage's refusal to release voter-approved bonds.
LePage reiterated his position on Monday in a letter to the Legislature's Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee.
An administration spokesperson declined to go on tape, but in the letter, LePage repeated his assertion not to release the LMF bonds — worth more than $11 million — until the Legislature enacts a particular piece of legisaltion regarding timber revenues.
LePage wants revenues from the harvesting of timber on state parkland to be transferred to the Efficiency Maine Trust to help rural Mainers with heating costs. He describes this as a "modest proposal to help those fellow Mainers who are most in need."
"I personally think it's a subversion of the democratic process," Lynch says.
She is concerned that the collapse of the Knight's Pond-Blueberry Hill deal could see the preserve ending up in the hands of developers.
"Voters expect that the bond money should be released as they voted for them," Lunch says. "And people care very much about this property."
Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of lawmakers plans to introduce legislation that would force LePage to release voter-approved bonds.
Republican Sen. Roger Katz and other sponsors will discuss the details of the bill at a State House news conference on Tuesday.