June 21, 2007
By JOHN FLOWERS
ADDISON COUNTY — It was in 1988 that the late state Sen. Arthur Gibb, R-Weybridge, became the first Addison County resident to sell the development rights to his property to the Vermont Land Trust (VLT).
Almost 20 years later — and in the 30th year of the VLT’s existence — more than 100 Addison County farmers, orchardists and private property owners have followed suit, conserving a combined total of 51,000 acres in 21 local communities.
“I think there is a strong conservation ethic in Addison County,” said Allen Karnatz, a New Haven resident and co-director of the VLT’s Champlain Valley office.
Indeed, Addison County ranks in the top five, in terms of counties in which the VLT has conserved the most land, which currently stands at around 470,000 acres statewide. Caledonia, Essex, Franklin and Orleans counties have also drawn substantial interest from the VLT, according to Karnatz. More than one-fourth of VLT-conserved property consists of the so-called “Champion land” in the Northeast Kingdom.
Still, Addison County leads the pack, when it comes to farmland conservation, according to Karnatz.
Of the 51,000 acres of VLT-conserved land in Addison County, 46,521 associated with farm operations, including 36,000 acres of dairies and 3,900 acres of cropland.
“When you look at tillable land, Addison County leads, with Franklin County second,” Karnatz said. “It’s not a big surprise, I guess. Addison County has got a strong agricultural base. It is a stronghold of agriculture and dairying not only in Vermont, but New England, really.”
Statistics provided by the VLT demonstrate how active the organization has been in Addison County since its inception. Locally, the VLT has:
• Conserved an average of 10 percent of the land in the 21 communities in which is has done deals. Those holdings range from a low of .15 percent of the total acreage of Granville, to 27.24 percent of farm-abundant Shoreham.
• Received 30 outright donations of conservation easements, representing a combined total of around 3,500 acres.
• Received $24.6 million in local, state federal funds, along with $10.7 million in private contributions, to apply toward its purchase of development rights purchases in Addison County. Approximately $14.5 million of that total $35.3 million has come through the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board (VHCB), the VLT’s primary funding source for conservation deals. The Freeman Foundation, at $10.3 million, has provided the most private funds for development rights acquisition in the county.
Karnatz said the goals of the VLT’s conservation program have remained consistent throughout the past 30 years: Preserve key tracts of the state’s scenic and fertile farmland and forestland for future generations. Proceeds from the conservation deals have also helped farmers reinvest in their operations to keep them financially viable and more affordable for future generations to take over, Karnatz noted.
“Obviously, we wouldn’t be in farming if it hadn’t been for (conservation deals with the VLT,” said Gail Wood, who with husband Loren operate Woodnotch Farms on the west side of Route 22A in Shoreham.
The Woods were among the first Addison County farmers to sell the development rights to their farm — which currently consists of 1,000 contiguous acres. The transaction allowed the family to improve their farm buildings and equipment while growing the size of their operation, which now includes 250 dairy cows.
Two generations of the Wood family have now used the VLT conservation program, most recently last year, in acquiring a 250-acre parcel of conserved land around a mile west of Woodnotch Farms.
The VLT’s conservation program has not been without its share of critics. Some have argued that development rights should not be purchased with public funds, and that the transactions devalue land assets when they are eventually passed down to the next generation.
Rob Hunt of Addison has participated in the VLT program twice, selling the development rights to his own farm while buying the spread next door after it had been conserved.
“I’m selling something that I’m not going to use anyway,” he said of the development rights.
While he has no regrets about having participated in the VLT program, Hunt does believe the organization can become overly intrusive during its annual visits to the farm. The VLT sends representatives to the conserved farms each year to make sure everyone is living up to their end of the contract. Hunt recalled a recent visit during which the VLT visitor noticed a camper on the farm.
“He asked how long the camper was going to be there, and whether I had asked if it was alright (to have a camper on the property),” Hunt recalled, adding he told the VLT representative he every right to have the vehicle there as long as he wanted.
“My warning is to make sure everything is in writing,” he said, of development rights agreements with the VLT.
Karnatz anticipates the VLT will now slow its pace of acquiring additional development rights, focusing more on stewardship of the lands it has already conserved. Of the 231 conserved properties in Addison County, 58 — or 25 percent — have new owners since the land was conserved.
“As these properties change hands, we need to make sure the new landowners know what the restrictions are,” Karnatz said.