Keep Current Use

by Bethany M. Dunbar, June 6, 2010

The Governor has vetoed a bill that would change the current use program.  And the Legislature has decided not to go back to try to override the veto.  This is good news for farmers, forest land owners, and anyone who cares about keeping the working landscape working — at least for now.

The Vermont Farm Bureau worked on the bill that the Governor vetoed.  The Farm Bureau supported it, with the idea that it would be better to have some reasonable fee increases than to have the whole thing cut even more — which is quite possible next year.

Current use is expensive.  But it works, and it’s the one thing that Vermont can really do to keep its remaining farms.  Dairy price policy is set nationally, and Vermont can’t change it by itself.  But property tax policy is a different matter.

The current use program allows landowners to pay a lower property tax based on “use value” instead of fair market value.  In other words, the land is taxed at a rate more in keeping with its working value than what it might sell for if it happens to be near a lake or mountain views.  Those views can really increase the real estate prices but don’t make the cows’ milk or vegetables or logs or firewood worth more.

In exchange for the lower taxes, the landowners agree to keep the land open and undeveloped.  If they take some of the property out of the program, it can be developed, but the landowner pays a penalty.

When money gets tight, current use is always looked at.  But this is the most important time to keep the program if we want to keep Vermont as a working landscape.  A recent poll shows that 97 percent of Vermonters have that goal.

One of the criticisms of the current use program has come from folks who point out that wealthy landowners or people who have recently moved to Vermont are taking advantage of it.

This view makes current use into a welfare program — which it’s not.  It’s about land use.

What frequently happens is the landowner allows a farmer neighbor to use that land for hay or pasture, sometimes for nothing.  So the landowner is gaining the tax advantage and so is the farmer.

If some land stays in farming, the benefit is not only to the landowner and the farmer.  It’s also to every business in town that has anything to do with agriculture or tourism.  What do you think the tourists come here to see?  Shopping malls?  Condominiums?  That’s what we will all get to look at if that farm and forest land gets developed.

In some towns in the Northeast Kingdom the businesses that happen to depend on agriculture or tourism might be every single business in that town.  No joke.

So thanks to Governor Jim Douglas for vetoing the legislation that would have increased fees.  From an economic point of view, current use should be absolutely the last program that gets cut in state government.  It’s basic to this state.  We just plain need it.

Not that I have a strong opinion about this or anything.  What do you think?

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