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Jim Kenyon: ‘Current use’ or tax abuse in Vermont?

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 8/31/2019 10:00:14 PM
Modified: 8/31/2019 10:00:12 PM

Anyone still clinging to the belief that Vermont’s vaunted current use program isn’t drifting more and more into welfare for the wealthy might want to take a drive to Hartland.

Three miles from the center of town, there’s a large field alongside the Brownsville Road where a farmer once grew corn for his cows.

Today about the only plant thriving in the field — part of a 165-acre parcel owned by an absentee landlord who paid $2 million for the property in 2008 — is poison parsnip.

But having a field overgrown with a nasty non-native plant doesn’t prevent the landowner from reaping huge tax benefits.

Because he’s enrolled in current use — a system that values properties based on owners’ forestry or agriculture efforts rather than their potential for development — Michel Guite’s 2019 property tax bill is $3,972. If his 165-acre parcel that the town has assessed at $723,200 wasn’t in current use?

Guite would pay $14,450. That’s a savings of $10,478.

Guite disputes my math — which I went over with two Hartland town officials — claiming his current use tax break is actually smaller. But when I asked him, he didn’t provide a figure. Guite has been enrolled in current use for about a decade.

The program, which the Legislature rolled out in 1980 to curb development of precious agricultural and forest land, evokes the invasive weed in Guite’s field. It’s growing out of control.

The number of enrollees has increased for 10 consecutive years, according to the Vermont Department of Taxes’ most recent annual report.

Last year, 15,307 current-use participants — up from 12,570 in 2009 — saved a total of $60.9 million in property taxes. In 2009, the program cost state taxpayers $49 million.

Every year, the state must make up that money elsewhere, or at the expense of other programs.

I don’t think most Vermonters would mind, if the tax breaks were going to only residents who needed the money to help make ends meet. But wealthy landowners who take advantage of current use’s generous benefits to avoid paying their fair share?

That’s more irritating than a parsnip rash.

I’m not suggesting the program be scrapped. As longtime Hartland Town Clerk Clyde Jenne points out, the original intent was “to keep farmers’ farming.”

It was a way — and still is — to ease the tax burdens for farmers feeling economic pressure to sell off land to developers.

Forty years later, the Department of Taxes estimates about 1 in 4 of the nearly 19,000 parcels now enrolled are owned by out-of-staters. (The last I heard, Guite lived in Greenwich, Conn., but also had a home in Springfield, Vt.)

Under current use rules, a landowner doesn’t need to be much of a farmer. They can just wing it.

In 2011, Guite planted more than 2,000 maple saplings on his property with the hopes of revolutionizing the maple sugar industry. Instead of taking 25 to 30 years to mature, the trees — part of a Cornell University experiment — could be tapped in 15 years.

Within five years, most of the trees resembled dried matchsticks. (Apparently, no one told Guite the trees might benefit from occasional watering and weeding.)

I shouldn’t be too hard on Guite. For him, farming is just a sideline business.

Guite, who is in his mid-70s, is president of Vermont Telephone Co. (VTel, for short). In 2010, the telecommunications company secured $116 million in federal grants and loans — with the help of the state’s congressional delegation — to make high-speed internet available throughout the state.

Nine years later, Guite’s promise to make Vermont the “first state in America where absolutely everyone gets coverage” has yet to come to fruition.

Sort of like his maple saplings.

In an email, Guite acknowledged that poison parsnip had become a problem in his Brownsville Road field.

On its website, the Vermont Department of Health warns the plant’s sap can cause “painful rashes and raised blisters” if it gets on a person’s skin.

“It makes poison ivy look like nothing,” said AJ Follensbee, the county forester for Orange and parts of Windsor County.

Follensbee recommends landowners wrestling with poison parsnip mow their property multiple times in the spring and early summer. “Don’t let it go to seed,” he said.

Guite told me that he’s been mowing the field annually, but the Weathersfield farmer tending to his property ran into equipment problems this year, and has fallen behind.

Guite said other parts of his farming operation are doing fine. He’s rebuilding stone walls, cutting brush to expand fields and restoring an organic apple orchard, among other things.

I’ll take his word for it. Much of his property is out of public view. The land — except for the field of poison parsnip, interestingly enough — is plastered with roadside no-trespassing signs.

That’s another beef I have with current use. Why should landowners who enjoy the financial benefits of a state program be allowed to ban the public from hunting and pursuing other recreational activities on their property?

The answer is the same reason the program isn’t limited to only Vermont residents, and why it doesn’t come with eligibility requirements that take into account an applicant’s income and wealth.

The political will doesn’t exist in Montpelier to rein in the program. Legislators don’t want to risk alienating wealthy campaign donors who benefit from current use. Environmental and conservation lobbying groups also hold a lot of sway at the Statehouse.

In Vermont, current use is a sacred cow. Just keep the livestock out of the poison parsnip.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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