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Higher penalties likely for ‘Current Use’ land program

BRIDPORT — Faced with the need to trim $1.6 million from Vermont’s so-called “Current Use” program, local legislators told farmers on Monday that changes are almost certainly in store for the popular tax abatement program that preserves Vermont farm- and forestland from development.
The Use Value Appraisal Program, as Current Use is officially known, isn’t on the chopping block, but possible changes include a one-year moratorium on new enrollments, higher penalties for landowners who withdraw land from the program to be developed, and a new property transfer tax that would be more in line with the rates applied to other property sales in the state.
Possible changes to Current Use, as well as divergent opinions about how the state should tackle the humane treatment of animals, dominated the discussion at the Bridport Grange during Monday’s lunchtime meeting with local legislators, when farmers turned out for a conversation devoted primarily to agricultural issues.
Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Weybridge, made it clear that it’s too soon to know exactly how changes to the Current Use program might shake out, though one thing is certain: With legislators looking to trim $1.6 million from the program, changes of one kind or another are in order.
Ayer favors a flat $150 “per participant” fee to help raise some of the money needed to keep the program going, while other legislators have angled for a “per acre” fee on land enrolled in the program.
Changes to the program cleared the House a few weeks ago and are now being debated in the Senate,
The $49 million tax abatement program is popular: A third of the land in Vermont is enrolled in the program. Property owners who enroll their land enjoy tax breaks, because their land is taxed at the value of its “current use,” instead of its developable value. The tax incentive encourages property owners to protect working landscapes.
Meanwhile, the state reimburses individual towns for the tax revenue they lose because of the program. Right now, reimbursements total roughly $11 million each year.
Ayer said that cutting the amount of money it takes to run Current Use is imperative this year, but said the $1.6 million in cuts is actually smaller, percentage-wise, than many of the cuts being levels at other state programs.
She also pointed out that it’s important to invest in the way Current Use is run: Many of the program’s officials are retiring, and taking with them decades of experience administering the 32-year-old program. Current Use is still a “pencil and paper” operation, and legislators think it will be important to digitize maps and bring the program online to make it more efficient in the long run.
But legislators are not all of the same mind on possible changes. Sen. Harold Giard, D-Bridport, balked Monday at the prospect of higher penalties for landowners who withdraw land from the program to be developed. That concerned several area residents who turned out for the meeting, too, including West Ferrisburgh resident Bob Hardy, who said an additional fee would just further financially harm retirees in Vermont who are “up against a wall.”
Others, like Bridport resident Paul Wagner, expressed a desire that all land in Vermont simply be taxed at its current use, doing away with a separate program all together. By eliminating the default to tax land at its developable value, Wagner said programs like Current Use wouldn’t be necessary.
Ayer pointed out that if higher penalties went into effect, landowners would have a grace period to take land out of the program under the old rates. Meanwhile, other state representatives like New Haven Democrat Chris Bray and Shoreham Independent Will Stevens said changes to Current Use could bring the program back to the original intent of the legislation. The higher penalties could help prevent landowners from enrolling their parcels in Current Use simply to take advantage of the tax benefits, though their intent could be to develop their land down the road. 
TREATMENT OF ANIMALS
Another hot-button topic on Monday revolved around the humane treatment of animals.
Giard briefed the audience on a piece of legislation he wrote about humane slaughtering, drafted in response to events at the Bushway slaughterhouse in Grand Isle. The slaughterhouse was shut down in October amid complaints about animal cruelty after an undercover member of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) filmed workers shocking, kicking, slapping and inadequately stunning veal calves before slaughter.
Giard’s bill has garnered national attention, but will likely not be signed into law: The intent, Giard said, was to bring attention to the issue of humane slaughter, something he thinks he has accomplished.
The slaughter bill sparked a larger discussion about how animal rights issues should be handled in Vermont. Legislators like Bray, backed by groups like the Vermont Farm Bureau, are backing H. 767, a bill that would set up a livestock care advisory council to handle any complaints.
Jane Clifford, a Starksboro dairy farmer and dairy lobbyist in Montpelier, said H. 767 could play an important role in keeping animal rights issues out of the Legislature and in the hands of experts who understand the issues.
This year alone, Clifford said, HSUS sponsored four bills in the Vermont Legislature.
“As we in the industry of the production of food become more and more the minority, more and more people are questioning our practices,” Clifford said. “In my mind, (HSUS’s) mission is to end all of animal agriculture. That’s what they believe.”
Farmers like Bill Sullivan and Paul Wagner, though, argued that a council like the one being proposed could just open up another avenue for lobbyists to push their agenda for Vermont farms.
Clifford, on the other hand, thinks that allowing animal rights issues to be handled by an advisory committee made up of farmers, veterinarians and other industry experts would ensure Vermont farmers can have a stronger voice in decisions made about farm practices.
“Your voice needs to be heard. We need to make sure people understand what we do and why we do it,” she said. “Our animals are our biggest asset, and if we don’t take good care of them, we’re not going to be in business. I believe that farmers are making good decisions on their farms … But when we are silent, when we don’t speak to what we do and why we do it, then we end up with what we get.”
Reporter Kathryn Flagg is at [email protected].
 

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