Are changes coming to the Current Use Program? - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

Are changes coming to the Current Use Program?

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For people who own land there is an issue in Montpelier that could impact your tax bill.

For years the Legislature has tried to change the Current Use Program. It's a program that gives tax breaks to those who keep their land in farming or forestry undeveloped. At Tuesday's hearing, there was support and opposition for the bill-- and a lot of questions.

Dozens gathered in the Statehouse Tuesday night for the last public hearing on a bill going through the Senate. Vermont's Current Use Program allows large property owners a tax break for land that is in current agricultural or forestry use.

"It is the most important conservation program that the state enables and finances. Without it, we have no working landscape. Vermont would not look like Vermont," said Rep. Alison Clarkson, D-Woodstock.

Instead of taxing landowners on fair market value, the land is valued on how it is used and what it can earn.

The program has been around since the 1970s and Agriculture Chair Sen. Bobby Starr says more than 2 million acres of Vermont land is currently enrolled in the program.

But as proposed in a recent bill, the program could go through a major reform.

Clarkson has been backing the charge and says the bill focuses around several main changes that will impose greater penalties to withdraw land from current use.

"It put the teeth back in the penalty in this tiered way -- depending on how many years you've been in the program. It asked for a consistent methodology to assessing current use land and land that's conserved and has conservation easements on it," said Clarkson.

Clarkson says the third main change is coming up with a fair and equitable way to reimburse towns for their portion of the tax break. But Starr says the penalties being introduced are too steep.

"It's a severe penalty and the idea of the program wasn't to set it up to make somebody stay in the program forever," said Starr.

It's a complex bill with mixed reviews.

"This is great. And your education of this -- this is great," said David Miskell of Charlotte.

"We've all said that we like farming and forestry and like the working land-- we want Vermont to continue to have a rural economy. But what these landowners need is stability and low costs, predictability and slow change if any," said Robbo Hollerhan of Chester.

Landowners spoke out both for and against the bill, and many had lots of questions about how these changes will impact the state.

"Unfortunately, as I read it -- I'm not quite sure this is clear as I would like to see it to be," said Ed Larson of Montpelier.

A new proposal by the Senate introduces a cap on benefits that would limit landowners from receiving a full tax break in highly sought after locations. An idea that didn't sit well with many.

"If my tax bill rises because of the caps it's going to be hard, and it's going to be even harder for the dairy farms in town. So the cap is an issue that would be great to go away," said Miskell.

The House did pass a Current Use bill last session, now, it's the Senate's turn. If the two sides cannot work out their differences the legislation would die and not become law. The governor would also have to sign off on the legislation.

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