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Update: Small Town Summit and payments for State-owned land

One of the big financial pain points for rural communities in Massachusetts is the unpredictable and unfair system used to make payments to towns for state-owned land. This issue has been one of the four key topics addressed by the Small Town Summit over the last three years. (The other three are?rural transportation,?ZIP codes, and rural school finances – the topic of tomorrow’s email.)

Since 2017, Rural Commonwealth has coordinated a workgroup focused on this issue made up of Small Town Summit participants from numerous communities in the western part of Massachusetts. In September 2018, we released a report, “Parks and Restitution: State-Owned Land Causing Financial Pain in Rural Massachusetts.”

This report ended with?four recommendations for policy and legislation changes?that would help relieve the financial strain of state-owned land on rural communities. The recommendations were:

1. All hearings about state-owned land should be held in the communities where the parcels in question are located.

2. Assessors, Select Boards, Finance Committee members, and Town Administrators should receive single-topic notifications about any proposed or actual changes to the state-owned land compensation procedures.

3. Each rural town should be reimbursed for state-owned land on a consistent annual basis using a formula that is based on the town’s current residential tax rate and the number of acres owned by the State during that year.

4. The Legislature should explore and support ways to make it easier for farmers to obtain mortgages on agricultural properties that exceed 20 acres.

Items 1 and 2 are policy change recommendations directed at the Department of Revenue (DOR) and the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA). To coincide with the release of Parks and Restitution, Rural Commonwealth coordinated a letter-writing campaign, through which rural Select Boards and Finance Committees across the state — from Clarksburg in the northwest to Rehoboth in the southeast — contacted the DOR and EEA to support these recommendations. The kick-off for this campaign was a Small Town Summit meeting in Peru.

The DOR was very receptive and responsive to this campaign.

The EEA??Not so much.?

Our specific request?for the EEA was related to Item 1, asking it to?enforce an existing internal rule that says towns will be notified of potential land acquisitions 120 days in advance, and?a hearing about a potential acquisition will be held in the town where the land is located at least 60 days in advance of the sale.

Small Town Summit participants often complain that the state buys land?(taking it off the local tax rolls) without any notice at all. This situation creates unnecessary financial surprises for towns that rely almost entirely on property taxes to pay the bills.

After repeatedly hearing versions of this story, I filed an information request with the EEA last summer, asking for meeting postings and other documents showing when the notifications and hearings required by EEA internal rules have taken place anywhere in the state over the previous five years.

EEA counsel responded (as discussed in our report linked above) that?there were no such documents because EEA land acquisitions were not subject to the agency’s own internal rules.?So far, I have not received an answer about why that might be the case.

When we conducted the letter-writing campaign, Matt Beaton was the Secretary at EEA. As far as I know, he did not respond directly to the letters from municipal leaders. (If I am wrong and your town did get a response, please let me know by replying to this email.) He certainly did not respond to Rural Commonwealth, although we previously had been in regular contact with him about other matters.

Last month, Secretary Beaton resigned from the EEA and was replaced by?Kathleen Theoharides, who previously was the EEA’s Undersecretary of Climate Change. She hails from western Massachusetts, where many of the communities most impacted by this issue are located.

I began reaching out to her office last week to start a conversation about the recommendation and letter-writing campaign. I will provide updates about that dialog via email and on our blog over the next few weeks.

In the meantime…?If you are a rural municipal leader who would like to get involved in our work on this issue, contact me by replying to this email or calling me at the number below.? Our?Payments for State-owned Land workgroup?will need to meet again soon to strategize about pushing the legislative recommendations (items 3 and 4) listed above. This workgroup often works remotely by email and phone, rather than in person, so you wouldn’t have to travel long distances to participate. We would love to have you join us!?

Thank you!
Beth Bandy
Director
Rural Commonwealth
413-824-2593

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