Questions and Answers About the Spiller Farm Easement

Bill and Anna Spiller wish to preserve their 130-acre farm on Route 9A, and keep it available for farming into the future.  On November 4th, townspeople of Wells will vote on the use of Land Bank funds for a portion of the cost of an Agricultural Easement that would protect Spiller Farm forever. The referendum article will read:

ARTICLE 3. To Approve Partial Funding For Agricultural Easement Over Spiller Farm. Shall the Town vote: (a) to appropriate and expend up to $152,000 from the CIP Land Bank Reserve – Open Space account to partially fund the total project cost of $549,000 (with the balance of funds to be provided by the Great Works Regional Land Trust and a gift from the Spillers) for the purchase of an Agricultural Easement over the approximate 130-acre Spiller Farm property located on Route 9A in Wells (Tax Map 77, Lots 18 & 19), which easement would extinguish development rights and preserve the property as farmland in perpetuity; and (b) to authorize the Board of Selectmen to take all steps necessary and appropriate to assist in the completion of such purchase?

For more information, click on the questions below.

Why is Spiller Farm Important?

Spiller Farm and Bill and Anna Spiller and their family help to make Wells such a great place to live.  The farm is very scenic and spans both sides of Route 9A for thousands of feet, on the way from Wells to Kennebunk.  The farm provides farm jobs and creates economic activity that helps the entire town.  The farm provides a local source for fruits and vegetables — healthful, nutritious food for us and our families, available at farm stands, at the farmers markets, and in the Wells schools.  Each year the Spillers typically donate thousands of pound of fresh food to the local food pantry.  Many Wells residents, as well as visitors from all over the world, enjoy the pick- your-own fields at the Spillers, or are members of the Spiller CSA, or buy their produce at the Spiller Farm Store. This iconic farm – and the folks who run it — create community, improve our lives and our health, and preserve a bit of rural character in our rapidly developing town.  Let’s keep it available for farming into the future!

How will this be done?

An Agricultural Easement will be placed onto the property and recorded at the county Registry of Deeds.  The easement will extinguish most development rights, but will permit and encourage farm uses.  It will also prevent subdivision of the 130 acre farm property.  The easement is permanent, meaning that it remains in force even when the farm is sold or changes hands.

Whose job is it to enforce this easement?

The easement will be held by the Great Works Regional Land Trust, our local land trust.  They are required to enforce the easement.  Great Works has extensive experience in Agricultural Easements, and holds many of them.  As easement holder, their job will be to make sure that the terms of the easement are followed, to work out any easement violations that may occur and if necessary, to enforce the easement in court.

Who is paying for this easement? 

The first gift is from Bill and Anna Spiller who are selling the easement for $125,000 less than it is worth!  Bill and Anna will still own the farm – what they are selling are the development rights which will be extinguished by the easement.  This deep bargain sale makes the project possible.  The easement was appraised at $501,000.  The Spillers will sell the easement for $376,000.  Great Works Regional Land Trust obtained a grant of federal ‘Farm and Ranchland Preservation Program’ funds for $250,000.  The Town of Wells is being asked to contribute the $152,500 needed to complete the project.   Keep in mind that the Spillers are giving up the right to subdivide the property and sell off house lots – they have chosen a different path for their land, one that keep it whole as productive farm land.

What is the Budget for this project?

The easement purchase price is $376,000.  The overall project cost is $549,000.  There is also  $25,000 in expenses for survey costs, appraisals, title search, and other due diligence required to close the easement.  Another $24,000 will go into a pooled stewardship fund at Great Works Regional Land Trust.  Such a fund is required by established practices to ensure that needed resources are in place to monitor and enforce the easement in perpetuity. And, the interest from this fund pays for stewardship of Great Works land trust properties; Great Works will raise private funds to help cover this cost.

Will this $152,500 raise my taxes?

No, the funds are already ‘in the bank’ thanks to past, incremental additions to the Land Bank fund.  That said future deposits to the Land Bank do come out of tax revenue – which is why modest annual deposits every year are held over, and accumulate until an important project like this comes along.

Will the Spiller Farm stay on the tax roles?

Yes!  One of the advantages of easements is that the property remains on the tax rolls, and property taxes will continue to be paid by the Spillers and subsequent owners of the farm.

Who is doing this project?

Like all such Agricultural Easements, this is a time consuming project, and it takes many hands to get it done.  The Town of Wells Conservation Commission supports this project and the town appropriation.  Maine Coast Heritage Trust and Maine Farmland Trust are providing staff time and technical assistance; Great Works Regional Land Trust raised the federal funds to help with this project, will contribute staff and volunteer time, help with communications and easement drafting, and will hold the easement.  And the Town of Wells is being asked to contribute $152,500 from the Land Bank to support the project.  The Natural Resources Conservation Service – a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture – is providing most of the purchase price for the easement and also serves as a back-up enforcer of the easement.

Can Great Works sell this easement to a private developer, or undo it?

No.  An Agricultural Easement can only be held by a conservation organization such as a land trust, or by a unit of government.  The easement could in theory be transferred to another conservation organization however, state law requires that the easement be permanent and remain in force forever.  In the (unlikely) worst-case scenario where the land trust dissolves, the State of Maine is charged with enforcing it.  As mentioned above, there is also back up protection via the federal government, which also has the right to enforce the easement if the land trust does not.

What if someone buys the land and does not want to farm it?

It is possible though unlikely that this could happen.  The specific purpose of the easement is to protect the farm soils, and create conditions where farming is the most sensible economic use of the land.  At 130 acres, Spiller farm is too large to be a ‘country estate’ property.  As a last resort, the easement allows Great Works Land Trust to maintain the fields if the property owner does not do so.

Is Great Works Land Trust making money off this deal?

No.  The land trust is a public charity and a nonprofit organization.  The land trust is taking on a perpetual burden of monitoring and enforcement.  What this means is that the trust must visit the property every year, contact the landowner, walk the property, and make sure there are no violations, and if there are violations, work with the landowner to correct them.  If necessary, the land trust will enforce the easement in court.  When the property changes ownership, the land trust will work with the new owners to educate them about the easement so that future problems can be minimized.  It is a lot of work, and goes on and on.

What does has the Spiller Farm done to improve Food Security?

For years the Spillers have quietly helped provide poor to the needy.  According to Frank Wertheim, U. of Maine Extension Educator and one of the sponsors of Maine Harvest for Hunger: “Since 2000, when Maine Harvest for Hunger began, Bill and Anna Spiller of Spiller Farm have been the largest single donor in York County.  The have averaged more than 10,000 pounds of fresh produce donated to the program per year.  Last year was Spiller Farm’s best ever record: they contributed over 23,000 pounds of fresh produce to Maine Harvest for Hunger.  The donated produce goes to at least a dozen food pantries, meal sites, low income and senior housing sites in our county.  York County led the State of Maine with donations totaling 50,000 pounds of fresh produce.  It is remarkable that 23,000 pounds of that statewide donated fresh produce comes from one farm: Spiller Farm of Wells.”

Is public access part of this easement?

Public access is not guaranteed by the easement because hiking trails, etc. are not usually compatible with active agriculture.  That said, as we all know, the Spillers welcome thousands onto their property each year, be it for pick your own vegetables, family festivals, and other activities.  Any future farmer of the property would be wise to follow this successful business model.

Who is Great Works Regional Land Trust anyway?

Great Works Regional Land Trust provides conservation options for landowners in the six southern Maine towns of Eliot, South Berwick, Berwick, North Berwick, Wells and Ogunquit.

A member-supported, nonprofit organization, Great Works’ mission is to conserve the value of our area’s natural, historic, agricultural, forestry, scenic and recreational resources.

Great Works pursues this mission by holding property and conservation easements where these values are present and by promoting the need and importance of conservation through education and other related activities.  Founded in 1986, the trust has completed 106 conservation projects, protected (along with partner organizations)  5,227 acres, holds 30 easements and owns and manages 2,103 acres in conservation land in Wells and five other southern Maine towns.  In case you are wondering, Great Works does pay property taxes on the land it owns.  Learn more about Great Works Regional Land Trust – including some great field trips and places to hike, hunt and fish – at www.gwrlt.org.

Who do I contact for more information about the Spiller Farm Agricultural Easement?

Feel free to contact Keith Fletcher, Project Manager for this project, at home.  His home/work number in Wells is 641-2866.  Keith works for Maine Coast Heritage Trust as his day job, but also volunteers for the Wells Conservation Commission and for the Great Works Regional Land Trust.