Guest editorial: Legislature faces crucial decisions on current use

Among the many issues being debated in Montpelier that could have a lasting impact on Vermont’s environment and economy are possible changes to the Current Use program.
Current Use allows farm and forestland to be valued, for the purposes of property taxation, at its “use” value instead of its potential development value. That reduces a significant cost to farmers and forestland owners and it’s widely believed that Current Use is one of the single most important land conservation policies Vermont has ever created. The premise behind the law – that land in production for farm or forestry purposes should be taxed fairly ­– has been strongly supported for years by conservationists, farm groups, woodland owners, the forest products industry and others.
Among the many benefits, Current Use supports our working lands economy, helps reduce our cost of community services – because forestland and farms demand far fewer town services than residential subdivisions or commercial development – and helps maintain Vermont’s scenic beauty and vibrant tourism industry.
This year, there is a proposal to require farmers to implement very basic measures to protect water quality to remain eligible in the program. This is a good idea because enrollment in Current Use should come with an expectation of responsible stewardship of the natural resources on which we all depend. Water is one of those natural resources. Forest landowners that enroll in the program have to comply with acceptable management practices to maintain water quality; therefore it is reasonable to ask farmers to do the same.
Under statute, the purpose of the Current Use program is to  “. . . maintain and conserve Vermont’s productive agricultural and forest land; protect Vermont’s natural ecological systems; prevent the accelerated conversion of these lands to more intensive use by the pressure of property taxation; achieve more equitable taxation for undeveloped lands; preserve and enhance Vermont’s scenic natural resources; and enable the citizens of Vermont to plan for orderly growth in the face of increasing development pressures.”
This proposal, designed to both maintain agricultural land and also protect ecological systems and water quality, is very much in keeping with the intent of the Current Use.
Another proposal under consideration – stopping new enrollment for three years and increasing taxes on enrolled farm buildings ­­– is not such a good idea.  Going back six years, the legislature asked groups that support Current Use to find $1.8 million in savings from the program. A wide range of organizations supporting agriculture, forestry, and land conservation came together and offered their best solutions. The idea that rose to the top is to fix the weak penalty for withdrawing and developing a portion of land from the program. Three years in a row, the House acted on this recommendation and passed legislation to strengthen the penalty.
The Senate has yet to pass similar legislation, and this void has allowed Current Use to remain a target in tough budget years. With a projected $94 million budget gap, the Shumlin administration has looked to the Current Use program this year for savings.
Rather than stifling the conservation of productive farm and forestland through a moratorium on new enrollments, a better solution is to strengthen the weak penalty for landowners leaving the program and developing their land. This would both fix a policy flaw in the program and raise additional revenue to allow Current Use enrollment to continue to grow. This is a more deeply researched and more widely supported concept than increasing taxes on enrolled farm buildings or imposing a three-year moratorium on new enrollments.
Current Use is a time-tested policy that undergirds our economy and helps keep our environment and rural communities healthy. Let’s keep it strong and assure it maintains its integrity for the long term. 
Jamey Fidel is the Forest and Wildlife Program Director for the Vermont Natural Resources Council.

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