Thursday, November 30, 2006

Plum Creek

Perhaps you've heard about what Plum Creek, the stockholder-owned real estate and timber company, has planned in Northern Maine. In a landscape that today stands as a largely undeveloped working forest, with pristine lakes and a remarkable wealth of renewable forest resources, Plum Creek has proposed building 975 houses and two large resorts.

By way of comparison, North Conway, New Hampshire has 1,602 housing units in all (2000 Census), and Bar Harbor has 1,558 (2000 Census).

Plum Creek has also tried to sweeten the deal by including a proposed "conservation framework" that would put 368,000 acres under easements or conservation ownership. The possibility for conservation is indeed impressive: the framework would connect a million acres of conserved lands stretching from Baxter State Park to the Canadian border. The only hitch is that the company demands approval of their development plans, then expects state taxpayers and conservation nonprofits to pony up millions of dollars for the framework to take effect.

I'll be writing about this business in greater depth in the weeks to come, until and during the time when the state conducts public hearings on the plan. In the meantime, a few links:

-Natural Resources Council of Maine (who are shaping up as the main opposition group)

-Plum Creek Moosehead Plan site

And this is the big plan: Plum Creek's own documents (these are huge files):

Vol. 1: Petition for rezoning (PDF, 90 mb)

Vol. 2: Plan description (PDF, 165 mb)

Vols. 3 and 4: Appendices (PDF, 110 mb)

The Maine Land Use Regulation Commission (LURC) has a whole web page devoted to the concept plan and its path through the regulatory process here, as well as a calendar of updates and upcoming events.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Buy local... while you still can.

I spent last Saturday evening at Stacy Mitchell's book reading in the old Center for Cultural Exchange space. The event was sponsored by the Portland Buy Local campaign, a new organization that's gaining lots of steam as a sort of chamber of commerce for homegrown businesses.

Mitchell was an excellent speaker, and her concerns with big box retailing are well founded and well researched. I should say that I generally agreed with her from the outset: big box retailers exploit structural inefficiencies in our economy (cheap suburban land and cheap gas, chief among them) at tremendous expense to workers, communities, and even to the consumers they are supposed to serve.

But I was also troubled by another aspect of Saturday's gathering: the expensive snacks donated by local caterers. Not that they weren't tasty - I certainly sampled the offerings - but the fact that fancy foods like these are typically beyond the means of most Portlanders, myself included. What value is there in local businesses that produce and sell things that most locals don't really need, or can't afford?

Indeed, the proliferation of upscale boutiques (call it retail gentrification) in downtown Portland seems, in some ways, to be the other side of the big box coin: consumers seeking bargains head for the burbs, while well-heeled consumers rebel against big box tastelessness by patronizing rarefied shops downtown. Where does that leave someone who can't afford to drive out to the fringes - do we expect them to eat cake, or a ten dollar block of cheese?

I asked a question in to this effect in the Q and A session that followed Mitchell's lecture, and in her excellent response (I hope that the wine and cheese retailers in attendance were listening) she noted that local shops had better serve local residents, or else face rebellion when the big boxes come courting with low prices for practical goods. She also noted that Portland's retail scene, while changing, is far from completely gentrified: we still have Maine Hardware, Paul's Grocery, as well as the empty storefronts and porn stores on Congress Street.

Still, the old Surplus Store has been replaced by three tony food merchants. As one other guy asked me after the event, "where's a guy to get socks and underwear around here?"

Saturday, November 18, 2006

What's wrong with the property tax

Taxes aren't just for raising money: they also serve to discourage activities that are undesirable to the public by raising their prices. A government subsidy, on the other hand, can be thought of as a "negative tax", something that encourages certain purchases and investments for the public good. Thus we have high taxes on things like cigarettes and booze, and low taxes and subsidies for things like affordable housing and some types of health care.

So what about property taxes? The property tax is almost always thought of exclusively as a fundraising tool for local municipalities. But a tax of its magnitude will inevitably have a big economic effect, by effectively increasing the costs of landownership. Thus, the property tax acts as an incentive for big landowners (say, farmers and woodlot proprietors) to subdivide and sell off their land in smaller parcels.

The property tax made a certain amount of sense in colonial times, when the amount of land a family owned was a good measure of how rich they were. And in some cases, the value of a property might still be a good indicator of wealth (if, for example, an appraiser values a big McMansion on five acres as worth more than a working farm on a hundred). But other taxes - like an income tax, gasoline tax on commuting, or - best of all - a progressive consumption tax would be more effective and fair.

In more ways than one, property taxes are too expensive for New England.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The secret formula

The Bollard reports today on the proposed "formula business" limits proposed for downtown Portland.

This idea, a reaction to a recent proposal to install a Hooters joint on Congress Street, rides the wave of "Keep Portland Independent" sentiment, which finds its expression in bumper stickers and tee shirts in nearly every Old Port storefront. And, on some level, it's a nice idea: support local businesses by keeping big franchises out.

Too bad this proposed legislation is such a mess.

The ordinance, championed by Karen Geraghty, is full of tortured legal language that tries to define what a "formula" business really is. It's difficult, because many of Portland's businesses, which no one wants to expel from the city, already follow some sort of "formula." As a result, the ordinance is long, confusing, and full of loopholes.

Which shouldn't be surprising, given the fact that this is all a knee-jerk reaction to the idea (horrifying to Portland's well-heeled bobos) that a roughneck joint like Hooters might end up on Congress Street. Where was Geraghty when other chains like Starbucks or Cold Stone Creamery moved in?

Downtown Portland has a bigger problem than the prospect of Hooters. This city's retail trade is thriving, but there's very little diversity among its businesses. You can "Keep Portland Independent" if you need to buy a tee shirt or precious bits of pottery, but good luck finding independent retailers of sensible things like nails, wastebaskets, or reasonably priced groceries. Ultimately, keeping chain businesses out of downtown will keep on driving (literally) the middle class out of the city to buy the things they really need at the mall.

Maddeningly, this might be exactly what certain members of the Council are after. Gereaghty's "Keep Portland Real" coalition, formed to support her legislation, consists of such tony retailers as Standard Baking and Aurora Provisions. Certainly a place like Hooters is anethma to the upscale shopping mall that they want Portland to be. But a functional city that serves its residents shouldn't be.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

TABOR tabled

A little over two years ago, I wrote this op-ed piece about Carol Palesky's first tax-cap proposal.

Voters rejected the second tax-reform referendum in as many years yesterday. And for a second time, we'll wait expectantly for our state legislature to take up the crucial issue of tax reform.

After the failure of the 1% tax cap in 2004, most people expected the Governor and the legislature to jump on the issue of tax relief. There have been a few initiatives, like the effort to regionalize services and to transfer more school funding to the state, but the near-success of TABOR tesifies to how unsatisfactory the results have been thus far.

Today's Press Herald argues that the voters who rejected TABOR were concerned more with this specific initiative than with tax reform in general, and that the next legislature will be expected to make Maine's tax system more equitable.

Only 37% of voters approved Question 1 in 2004. Last night, 46% of voters said "yes" to TABOR. If the legislature doesn't act quickly, we'll have another citizen-led effort to hack the state budget in 2008 - and the third time's the charm.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

The million-dollar plan

Conventional wisdom regarding Maine's economy cites high taxes and closed mills, but conventional wisdom is also a handy tool for political hacks. GrowSmart Maine has commissioned a study from the Brookings Institution that promises us that Maine "stands within reach of a new prosperity-" if we follow their think tank advice.

I've only read a bit of the report so far, but the executive summary cites some striking statistics. For example, between 1980 and 2000, Maine converted more than 1,300 square miles (an area the size of Rhode Island) from rural fields and woodlots to suburban subdivisions. "In the 1990s only Virginia lost a greater share of rural land than Maine." Maine is not an especially small state, and most of it is rural, but nevertheless, we plopped houses on farms and forests faster than Texans could turn their plains to shopping malls and Florida could turn its swamps into retirement communities. This has got to be rough news for Mainers inclined to think of those other places as self-consuming sprawl-slums: Maine is doing even worse.

Here's another one: Maine's population was increasing faster than the populations of 24 states in 2000, and has had the 5th highest rate of domestic in-migration since 2000. The new arrivals are wealthier, older, and increasing Maine's average per-capita income simply by being here. On paper, this looks good: Maine's per-capita income is now almost as high as the national average. But if you have a town of four people who each earn $20,000 a year and a millionaire moves in, the per-capita, or average income of that town will suddenly get very high, even if the original four residents lose their incomes entirely. Similarly, we can have thousands of rich retirees move here and improve our economic statistics, but the lives of those who are here now won't necessarily improve.

Indeed, the report notes that "many high-paying manufacturing and forest jobs have been replaced by lower-paying consumer services positions," such that job growth statistics mask a reality of decline.

So, migration is causing some problems, but not as many as most Mainers would have you believe. New arrivals are giving us jobs in the state's most promising sectors, from organic farming (thanks, Casco Bay bobos) to health care (thanks, all you geriatrics), to financial services (thanks, Martha Stewart and all the rest of those midcoast MBAs). In fact, maybe we could harness the wealth of our new arrivals to offset some of the problems posed by their arrival... say, by lowering taxes, conserving rural land and enhancing downtowns, and providing job training for the rest of us?

Well, the Brookings Institution has some advice about how to do that, too. More on the the solutions in a future post.

Click here to read the Brookings report in its entirety.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Back in Maine!

After seven years of (mostly) absence, I will be returning very soon to my childhood home state of Maine. Jess and I plan to sign a lease for a Portland apartment as soon as we find one that suits us, and while I still haven't figured out whether or not I'm still registered to vote in Standish, I can at least start to participate as an electronic citizen.

And so, reflecting the change in headquarters, the plan is for future posts to be more frequent and more Maine-focused. But, just as Maine's environmental issues usually relate to global forces beyond its control, I also plan to continue writing on the broad topic of nature and how people conceive of and relate to it.

It's good to be back in the vigorous north.