Change To Current Use Program Stirs Debate

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(Host) The Senate has approved legislation that supporters say will help put the state’s Current Use program on solid financial ground.

One section of the bill changes the penalties for landowners who take their property out of the program. 

And as VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports, the proposed change has set off a heated debate.

(Kinzel) The Current Use program was started 30 years ago as a way to help preserve farm and forestland. It does this by assessing the land based on its "use" value instead of its development value.  

It’s been a popular program – one third of all land in the state of Vermont is currently enrolled in Current Use – that’s over two million acres.  About 25% is farmland and 75% is forestland.

The House and the Senate are taking different approaches to improve the long term fiscal condition of the program.

The House places a one year moratorium on new applicants – the Senate rejected this approach and instead imposes a one time fee of $128 on all participants.

Addison senator Claire Ayer says it’s critical to address the fiscal stability of the program:

(Ayer) "This proposed change does that, and it’s to the benefit of the state, it’s to the benefit of all of us. Farmers and foresters in particular can look ahead and know that the program is going to be there for them. It’s not going to be capped, it’s not going to be limited. We’re going to keep the promise of current use and keep the program strong."

(Kinzel) The big fight came over a section that changes penalties for people who withdraw their land from the program.

Let’s say you had 100 acres in the program and two of the acres were on a lake – clearly the most valuable piece of your property. Under current law the penalty would be pro-rated – and in this case you’d be selling 2% of your total property. 

(Kinzel) The new Senate bill assesses the penalty to the specific value of that valuable lake front land.

Essex Orleans senator Bobby Starr argued the change was unfair to farmers who sometimes sell land enrolled in the program to raise cash:

(Starr) "I think it’s an assault on rural Vermont. It’s taking advantage of people all over the state of Vermont that has land in the Current Use program."

(Kinzel) But Orange senator Mark MacDonald said the change was aimed at landowners who are trying to take advantage of the Current Use program:

(MacDonald) "It doesn’t interfere with the goals of the program, which is to keep land in the program, because there is no change for anyone who keeps land in the program. It does interfere with people who have no intention to keep land in the program but find the program convenient a good place to park the land until such time as they develop it – for them, there will be some adverse effect."

(Kinzel) A House Senate conference committee will now meet to work out a compromise version of the bill.

For VPR News, I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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