MONTPELIER — The Vermont House and Senate agriculture committees are gearing up for a showdown over changes to the state’s flagship land conservation program.
A special study committee chaired by Sen. Bobby Starr, D-Essex/Orleans, struck all the language from a bill that passed the House in 2013. The Senate version — still a rough draft — was discussed at the Statehouse on Tuesday evening at the fifth and final in a series of public hearings.
The Senate version tweaks some of the House provisions, leaves others behind and introduces new mechanisms for managing the nearly 2.37 million acres enrolled in Current Use at a cost of about $57 million in 2013.
Chief among the changes are a proposed cap on tax benefits that landowners could claim for keeping their land as working farms and forests.
Under Current Use, forestry or agriculture land is taxed less because it is valued for its current “use” rather than its current fair market value.
In tax year 2014, to begin April 1, forest land will be valued between $89 and $118 per acre — down a dollar from up to $119 in 2013. Agricultural land will be valued at $279 per acre, up $14 from the current year.
Some say the program is being manipulated by landowners to receive temporary tax breaks. Others fear that making it harder — or more expensive — to pull land out of the program would unfairly penalize land-rich, cash-poor families who deserve the right to sell their property at will.
The Senate study committee’s proposal to cap benefits stops short of suggesting what their upper limit should be.
Currently, the state simply waives the difference between taxes on a property’s fair market value (FMV) and use value appraisal (UVA).
But the senators on the study committee are suggesting the state should only waive the difference to a certain point. The landowners would then owe whatever taxes — if any — the state doesn’t waive.
Sen. Richard Westman, R-Lamoille, said in an interview Wednesday that the cap is an effort to discourage a pattern of subdivision that ends up costing the state more for the same amount of enrolled land.
But the proposal was met with skepticism Tuesday night, with several witnesses fearing the cap would inadvertently encourage development.
“In towns with high property values, this would increase the pressure to develop,” said Put Blodgett, a woodsman long active with the Vermont Natural Resources Council, the New England Forestry Foundation and the Vermont Woodlands Association, among other groups.
The Senate committee also proposed more oversight of the agricultural aspect of Current Use. Currently, landowners only need to submit management plans for forest land.
Many witnesses also were intrigued by the committee’s proposal to establish a “floating” two-acre exemption from enrollment. That provision would let landowners reserve two acres of a parcel for future development without facing a penalty. The two acres would be appraised at fair market value.
Editor's note: This story was provided by VTDigger.org.