No one has suffered more from Maine's heavy reliance
on the property tax than the people of Chebeague Island, so it's fitting
that one of them may have found a way to lighten the load.
Over the years Chebeague has welcomed a steady stream of wealthy vacationers
while saying goodbye to the children of long-time residents, who can no longer
afford island housing prices and high taxes. The question that confounds
local officials is how to fairly tax waterfront property without pricing
out families that have lived and worked by the sea for generations.
Sitting on his wharf last summer while waiting for a load of bait,
Chebeague lobsterman Malcolm Whidden may have hit on part of the answer.
He scribbled down a few notes which form the basis of what has become known
as the "Chebeague proposal," which will likely appear in bill form before
the Legislature. While our support is contingent on the details of a bill,
this plan deserves serious consideration. It could help longtime residents
keep their homes without preventing the towns from collecting the tax revenue
they need to fund schools and municipal services.
Whidden's idea is a simple one: If an owner promises that he will never
sell his land, its taxable value would not increase faster than inflation.
If the owner decides to sell anyway, he would pay a stiff penalty to the
town 30 percent of the difference between the assessed value and the selling
price. Collections of those penalties would offset any loss of tax revenue
the program would cause.
If made law, the Chebeague proposal could be applied to any property
in the state, but it would probably appeal to very few landowners. Most people
view real estate as an investment and expect to make a profit when they sell.
They would probably continue to pay taxes at full market value so they could
avoid a penalty later. This tax program would only make sense for the small
number of people who want to stay on their land for life and pass it on
when they die. Even if the number of participants is small, however, the
program would still be valuable if it could keep a few fishing communities
like Chebeague intact.