May 07, 2021

Tax break favored for historic property

Mainers concerned about the loss of historic and scenic properties to development appeared ready to give tax breaks to owners of such properties as a possible solution to the problem.

With 84 percent of the votes tallied at midnight Tuesday, 54.5 percent of the voters favored a constitutional amendment that would allow municipalities the right to offer property tax breaks to owners of historic or scenic property.

The other proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot — which would eliminate special elections held specifically for the purpose of a people’s veto vote — was passing easily with 71 percent in favor.

Question 9, the property tax amendment, was the more controversial of the two. It was sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Jane Amero and opposed by the Maine Municipal Association.

The amendment would allow municipalities to craft ordinances to govern when and if property tax relief could be offered to owners of historic or scenic properties, especially if the properties were threatened by development.

Amero, a Republican, said the amendment would give municipalities “tools” to use when bargaining with property owners about the future of important and historic properties.

The amendment sprang from a local concern in Cape Elizabeth, Amero’s hometown. Cape Elizabeth recently lost to development the Two Lights keeper’s house, a long-standing Maine landmark.

Amero said town officials “felt their hands were tied and they had no tools to encourage the buyer [of the lighthouse keeper’s house] to keep the building intact and renovate it within the existing framework.”

The Executive Committee of the MMA said the ballot measure was confusing and would undermine the integrity of Maine’s local property tax system.

“By creating the authority to establish local split-rate taxation systems or special tax abatement systems, this constitutional amendment would disrupt the equity and uniformity necessary for the proper functioning of Maine’s local property tax system,” wrote MMA Executive Director Christopher Lockwood in a letter to the Bangor Daily News.

The MMA supported Question 8, the people’s veto amendment. There was no organized opposition to the proposal.

The proposed amendment was inspired by a people’s veto repeal of a law that would have extended the protection of the Maine Human Rights Act to homosexuals.

Some election watchers and political consultants have speculated that timing had everything to do with the repeal of the so-called gay rights law passed by the 118th Legislature and signed by Gov. Angus King. The Feb. 10, 1998, special election drew only about 30 percent of registered voters in Maine, and the enacted law was overturned by a slim margin.

The extra costs of holding special elections cost Maine communities about $350,000, according to Geoffrey Herman of MMA.

The constitution currently mandates that special elections be held for a people’s veto vote if a general election does not fall within six months of when a petition calling for the vote is turned in to the secretary of state.

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