Farmers consider changes to land conservation deal

ADDISON COUNTY — Loren Wood was 18 years old in 1972 when he and his family relocated from New Hampshire to Vermont, leaving a farm just outside of Manchester to set up shop in Shoreham.
At the time, Wood remembers, the farmland around Manchester was slowly beginning to be transformed by development — a house here and a house there.
“It’s not hard to see why we chose to conserve our land,” Wood said. “It bothers me to see good farmland go to houses.”
That’s why, in the early 1990s, the Woods sold their first conservation easement, setting aside 650 acres to be preserved for agricultural use “in perpetuity” — forever. They conserved the land through the Vermont Land Trust (VLT), which paid the family the difference between what the farm was worth as farmland and what the land might have been worth, had it been sold for development.
A few years later, when Wood and his wife bought an adjoining parcel of farmland to add to their dairy farm, he sold the development rights at the same time as he purchased the land, “buying down the cost.” More recently, some of Woods’ sons have done the same thing; the additional money those easements brought in, Wood said, made it financially feasible for the young men to get into the dairy farming business. Altogether, the Wood family now has 1,300 acres in Shoreham preserved.
Selling conservation easements is a big decision; signing over development rights means a farmer’s land can never be used for anything other than agriculture, which eliminates the chance to subdivide sometime in the future.
But Wood said his family never thought twice about the decision.
“We had come from where there were houses,” Wood said, pointing out that building subdivisions and houses is a decision that has lasting ramifications, too.
“Once there’s a house there, it’s never going to be farmland again,” he said.
Right now, the only way for farmers to sell their development rights — deals typically arranged through the VLT and Vermont Housing and Conservation Board — is to agree to these perpetual term agreement.
But some Vermont farmers are beginning to question whether or not preserving farmland in perpetuity is the only option for conservation, and members of the Vermont Farm Bureau are angling to create a way landowners can set land aside in 20-, 30-, or 40-year easements, what farmers have called “generational” periods.
Delegates from the Farm Bureau have now included that idea in the organization’s platform, and will be lobbying for the new approach in Montpelier.
“At this point, it sounds like a really good idea to make (land rights) generational and not ‘in perpetuity,’ because things change, and communities change,” said Addison resident and Vermont Farm Bureau Administrator Tim Buskey.
Buskey admitted that the plan could have some drawbacks. He pointed out that local zoning and planning initiatives would be back at square one if development rights expired after a set period of time. The method for appraising development rights would also have to change.
“Does value change over that time period? I think we recognize that it might,” Buskey said.
But Buskey also pointed out what he sees as the upside of the proposal. If he were a farmer, he explained, and knew he wanted to farm, it might make sense to sign away development rights for 40 years.
“What the next generation or my kids or grandkids might decide could be different,” Buskey said.
But officials at the VLT are hesitant to swerve from the perpetual easement model they currently use.
“Our easements are perpetual and they always have been,” said Allen Karnatz, the regional director of the Champlain Valley office of the VLT. “Not only is that our policy, it’s also federal policy.”
Elise Annes, the VLT’s vice president for community relations, explained that the trust receives matching federal grants for many of the conservation easements it purchases, and that federal money hinges on buying perpetual easements. If the easement policy changes, the VLT could lose as much as $9 million in matching funds a year.
Annes pointed out what she saw as a few more drawbacks. She worried that the land trust might have trouble drumming up public support for the easement purchases if the rights weren’t permanent. Plus, the process would be expensive; a 30-year easement would cost about 75 percent of what a perpetual easement would cost, and Annes worried that shorter term easements would quickly grow too expensive for the trust to renew after 20 or 30 years.
“We can’t count on the real estate market to preserve the farms and forests,” Annes said. “The perpetual easements are the only way to keep them available for future generations.”
Karnatz said he appreciated that some farmers, particularly those who are concerned that future generations may not choose to farm, might find the idea of a perpetual trust somewhat problematic. In some cases, he said, the choice to put a farm into conservation can be an even tougher choice than selling the farm outright. A farmer could always in theory buy the land back, after selling it, he explained, but an easement is irrevocable.
Still, Karnatz said the upside is that agricultural land, once conserved through a land trust, becomes more affordable for the next generation. Future farmers aren’t competing against major developers to buy that land.
“It’s really about the long haul, not just this generation,” Karnatz said.
Like Loren Wood, some other farmers are perfectly comfortable with the idea of setting aside their land for agricultural purposes for a long, long time. Take dairy farmer Jerry Connor, who conserved more than 400 acres of his Bridport dairy farm with the VLT in 2000. He wasn’t able to conserve all of his land, though, because Bridport town officials were reluctant to have so much land near Bridport’s town center locked up in conservation easements.
The money that selling his development rights brought in sweetened the deal, but Connor said if he hadn’t needed the funds, he would have been tempted to donate his conservation easement to the land trust. He hopes that his son will take over the farm eventually, but the biggest benefit, for Connor, is the reassurance that comes with signing over the development rights.
“It’s nice to think that it would never be developed,” Connor said. Like Wood, he pointed out that some other neighboring states haven’t been as careful about protecting farmland, and Connor thinks it shows. Head into any valley in Vermont, he said, and you’ll see farmland being put to work.
“That’s what makes the whole state of Vermont so beautiful,” he said.

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