by Bethany M. Dunbar
ORLEANS, VT — The Current Use Program costs the state of Vermont about $54 million a year, but its positive impact on the state’s economy was about $4 billion in 2007, a committee of Vermont senators heard recently at a meeting at Lake Region Union High School.
They also heard from farmers, foresters, and the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers (VAST) that the program is absolutely vital to keeping Vermont’s working landscape open and intact.
“If it weren’t for Current Use, we wouldn’t be there,” said Reg Chaput who owns a 2,200-acre dairy farm with his brother in Newport Center and employs 22 people.
He said his property taxes for the year would be $100,000 without it.
The Current Use Program is intended to keep land open by assessing it at its value as working land, often much lower than its fair market value. The state of Vermont pays towns the difference, and that’s where the $54 million comes in. In exchange, the landowner agrees not to develop the land.
Senator Bobby Starr of North Troy called for holding Tuesday’s hearing, and legislators participating included members of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Finance Committee, and Natural Resources Committee. It was the first of three hearings around the state, with one planned for Montpelier in January.
In the last legislative session, the House passed a bill that would change the penalties in Current Use, and this winter the Senate will consider whether it agrees with the House plan, wants some other change, or wants to keep the program as it is.
“It seems like Current Use has worked very well,” said Senator Starr, or else, he said, there would not be two million acres enrolled in it.
If someone enrolls land in Current Use and then later wants to develop part of that land, the landowner must pay a penalty. Some said they felt the penalties have become too low.
Senator Mark MacDonald said the program started in 1978 with a penalty of 10 percent of the value of the land taken out of the program. Since then penalties have gone down.
“We want folks to be in Current Use because it’s good for the state of Vermont,” said forester Richard Carbonetti of Albany. “Its primary role is tax equity, not a subsidy.”
He urged the legislators not to muck with it too much.
The program is an economic engine because each property needs a management plan that will improve the woodlot while creating jobs for foresters, loggers, and others who build wood products and sell them, Carbonetti said. Open land, both forestry and farmland, generates tourism income as well. Also, land that is not developed does not require services that cost taxpayers’ dollars, he said.
“Land doesn’t require services, people do,” Mr. Carbonetti said.
Nick Ecker-Racz of Glover said he thinks the foresters who do the management plans for property owners should have to be certified or licensed in Vermont. Several others echoed his statement. Otherwise, someone who spent two weeks taking one class can call himself or herself a forester, and there is no way for a landowner to know who is legitimate.
Carbonetti agreed with him.
“You have to be licensed to be a hairdresser in Vermont but not to be a forester,” Carbonetti said. He said he always thought a bad haircut would do a lot less damage than a bad forestry job.
Ecker-Racz said it’s hard for the area’s county forester, Ray Toolan, to supervise all the private foresters who might submit plans since he currently has to cover two counties.
But Orleans County will be getting its own forester. Mike Snyder, the commissioner of Forests, Parks, and Recreation, acknowledged at the hearing that the state has decided to hire someone and has started looking for potential candidates.
Others who spoke in support of Current Use included Bryan Davis, who owns a dairy farm in Derby Line; Trevor Evans, who owns a tree farm in Derby; Ross Morgan, a forester in Craftsbury; and Dan Kilborn, an Island Pond-based forester.
“You have a good program, a great program,” said Davis. “I would ask you not to change it.”
Evans said if you want to see the difference Current Use makes, look at the land around exits 27 and 28 of Interstate 91. By one exit, there’s a 60,000-sq. ft. warehouse being built, a Shaw’s, a McDonald’s and a tripleX store. By the other one, there are trees and open land, and that land belongs to him.
“Current Use has made it possible for me to keep that land,” he said.
He said he wishes the state would contract with landowners in current use instead of the program being some kind of one-way promise. That way he could plan ahead for leaving the land to his children or selling development rights. If the state wants to make changes, it should set up a system where each landowner has a contract spelled out in terms in existence at the time, he said. Changes could be established for new contracts, he suggested.
“I feel that the program is tremendously important,” to keep the working landscape working, said Mr. Kilborn. He said for every 1,000 acres of forest in current use, one and a half forestry and wood products jobs and a couple of tourism jobs are created, studies show.
Ross Morgan of Craftsbury talked about changes he has seen in the landscape over the years he has been writing management plans for landowners. He has been doing plans since Current Use started and he once figured out that for every one dollar’s worth of growth in the forest, there would be $8 to $11 of taxes without current use. He agreed with Ecker-Racz about requiring foresters to be licensed because he said he will retire eventually.
“I want the people who are going to replace me to be far more qualified than I am,” he said. He doesn’t want them to be loggers pretending to be foresters in order to talk a landowner into cutting all their best trees.
Carol Krochak owns a 36-acre forest in Burke. She asked the legislators to consider allowing the management plans for forests to be more flexible. She doesn’t want to have to harvest logs or do anything much, which seems the most appropriate plan for some land she has that is steep and has a few streams on it.
“Keeping it as a healthy, living wild forest has a value,” she said. “Wild forests are also working forests.”
by Bethany M. Dunbar