Capitol Notebook: Timmons a bad choice for land purchase board

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Just last week, a large parcel of land behind the Statehouse was saved from development and transferred to the city of Augusta despite the best efforts of Gov. Paul LePage.

The roughly 160-acre parcel, called Howard Hill, was purchased partly using money from the Land For Maine’s Future program, which has been a frequent target of the governor. But the amount that the state LMF board contributed to that project was cut in half at the last minute, leading one board member to resign in protest.

Despite the strong voter approval for bond issues to back land purchases under the LMF program, LePage has argued that it benefits “only the wealthy.” LePage previously refused to issue bonds that were approved by voters, trying to force the Legislature to allow more timber-cutting on state land by holding the LMF money hostage. And he has changed the makeup of the board, replacing most board members whose terms have expired with those more friendly to his philosophy.

His new appointee to the board, Michael Timmons, was the state representative from Cumberland in the Legislature’s last term. He angered local residents when he backed LePage after his failure to issue bonds jeopardized a popular local land preservation project. That project, Knight’s Pond, located in North Yarmouth and Cumberland, went ahead using other funds, although the bonds were finally released.

Cumberland town officials were furious that Timmons went back on a promise to support the Knight’s Pond project, to which the town had allocated funds. Instead, Timmons cast a crucial vote that upheld a LePage veto of legislation that would have forced him to issue the bonds.

Timmons lost his seat in the Legislature in November, and has now been nominated by LePage to the LMF board.

Timmons’ appointment is a slap in the face to proponents of the work of the LMF board and will likely be controversial. A hearing on the appointment is scheduled for Tuesday, Jan. 31, at 1 p.m. in front of the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry committee.

The debate over Howard Hill at the LMF October meeting showed the new tenor of the board, when it voted to reduce the amount of funds it would give to the project from $337,500 to $165,000, forcing the Kennebec Land Trust, which has shepherded the project for years, to get bank financing to fill the gap.

The original LMF funds to the project had been set using the board’s appraisal process, and one board member, Neil Piper of Gorham, argued that it set a bad precedent for the board to change its earlier commitment to such an extent.

The minutes from the October LMF meeting reflect a tense atmosphere, with acting Chairman Chandler Woodcock ruling out of order members of the public who tried to ask questions from the floor. After much discussion and several motions, the board came up with a proposed funding level of $167,500, just about half of its earlier commitment.

This change, and the manner of discussion, was too much for Piper, who left the meeting and later resigned from the board, arguing that changing the board’s commitments after they have been made would undermine faith in its operations.

LePage’s appointment of Timmons is just the latest in his attempts to change the direction of the board. At one meeting, his commissioners, who make up three of the nine members, all failed to show up, meaning the board had no quorum to take action.

If Timmons is confirmed, LePage will have transformed the board into one that is much more critical of land preservation projects.

Portland resident Marian McCue is the former editor and publisher of The Forecaster.