By Kristy Wagner
The future of farming in Kennebunk became more secure recently thanks to Tom’s of Maine founder Tom Chappell and his wife, Kate.
Just before Christmas, the couple donated agricultural easements on two farms they own in town, adding up to 154 acres of protected farmland for the state of Maine. The Chappell’s still own the acreage, but if they sell the land in the future the easements dictate that it can only be used for farming by whoever purchases it.
The Chappells donated the easements through Maine Farmland Trust, a nonprofit organization formed in 1999 with the goal to preserve farmland throughout the state.
John Piotti, executive director of Maine Farmland Trust, said Tom Chappell donated the easements on a whim when the nonprofit approached the entrepreneur in December about participating in the recent campaign to preserve 100,000 acres of farmland of the 400,000 acres in the Maine estimated to be in transition in coming years.
Piotti said an agricultural easement is a form of conservation easement that puts a restriction on a property that would prevent any kind of future development on that land. He said conservation easements “basically keeps the land as it is.”
“We actually approached (Chappell) about being the honorary chairman of our campaign, which he agreed to do, and then he said ‘Hey I got some farmland, how about I donate an easement on it?’” Piotti said. “(Chappell) is getting engaged in a couple of ways and we’re very appreciative of it.”
Maine Farmland Trust closed on the easements donated by the Chappells just before Christmas.
“When you have a deep regard for the environment, you do what is necessary,” Chappell said in a Dec. 30 prepared statement.
Piotti said an agricultural easement allows for flexibility on the property it protects. He said that instead of development, an agricultural easement allows the land to be cultivated only for farming. Along with donating the rights of the land’s use, the Chappells donated the value of the land they own.
“What the Chappells have done is donated an agricultural easement on their property, which basically lowers the value of their property. That’s where the generosity comes from,” Piotti said. He said the value of the property is lowered because the easements restrict the land in terms of how it can be used by future landowners.
The Chappells said their goal in donating the easements was to protect the future of Maine farmers.
“We were motivated by not just preserving land for the land’s sake or open space, but to keep it in production for future generations,” Kate Chappell said in a prepared statement.
Attempts to reach the Tom and Kate Chappell for further comment were unsuccessful.
Piotti said the monetary amount the farmland loses in value cannot be known without an appraisal of the land after the easement takes effect, Piotti said.
He said the Chappells most likely will have the land appraised because the loss value of their charitable donation can be written off on taxes.
Piotti said the lowered worth of the land after donation makes it more accessible to farmers who usually cannot afford to pay the high price on land that is not protected by an agricultural easement.
“Farmers need to pay a developer price for land they never intend to develop, but when land is under an agricultural easement the price is less,” Piotti said.
He said easements are legally binding and can last forever if that is the purchaser’s or donor’s intent.
Piotti said easements can be purchased or donated, but since donation of easements lowers the value of the land many owners of farmland cannot afford to be as generous as the Chappells.
“Generally speaking, the reduction in value will range from 10 percent to 85 percent so the value could diminish greatly,” Piotti said.
Piotti said many landowners are not able to afford to take the financial risk of donating an easement, so Maine Farmland Trust can purchase an easement on their land where the landowner gains compensation for allowing an easement to be put in place instead of losing monetary value on it.
“We rely on the generosity of people like the Chappells,” Piotti said. “The truth is a lot of farmland owners are not in a financial position to be that generous. They may own farmland they would like to see protected but all of their assets are tied up in that land and they can’t afford to donate an easement.”
Maine Farmland Trust has preserved 30,000 acres of farmland through the donation and purchase of conservation and agricultural easements.
Piotti said Kennebunk is an area that has a lot of very good farmland. He also said the town is an area that has seen significant business growth in recent years and southern Maine is “a very hard place” to find affordable farmland.
Piotti said many farmers in southern Maine, and throughout the state, rely on land they do not own. He said Maine Farmland Trust often works with farmers who wish to secure acreage to replace land they used previously but that the owner has sold off.
“We’re really about keeping working farms working and farmland protection is one tool in doing that,” Piotti said. “There’s a whole range of beginning farmers, young people who want to enter farming and the biggest barrier is finding affordable land.”
Staff writer Kristy Wagner can be reached at 282-4337, ext. 233.