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Jim Kenyon: Current Use Program a Sweet Deal for Michel Guite

Published: 8/6/2016 11:06:15 PM
Modified: 8/6/2016 11:06:16 PM

In 2011, Michel Guite planted about 2,250 maple saplings on his property in Hartland with the intention of some day getting into the maple sugar business. Five years later, nearly all of the trees — at least the ones planted in a large open field adjacent to the Brownsville Road — have turned to dust. The field that once featured long rows of saplings, each wrapped in a bright blue plastic tube to protect its bark, has become overgrown with tall grass, thistles and milkweeds.

Unless Guite comes up with a formula to make maple syrup from poison parsnip, I’m afraid his field of dreams has died on the vine — or has been overtaken by vines.

But it’s far from a total loss.

Guite, known more for heading the embattled telecommunications company VTel than his green thumb, continues to tap into the benefits of Vermont’s current use program.

Last year alone, Guite’s enrollment in current use — otherwise known as welfare for the wealthy — saved him roughly $11,000 in property taxes.

His 2015 property tax bill on 164 acres, which the town’s listers have assessed for $626,400, came to $702.

Quite a bargain for a parcel that Guite shelled out $2 million for in 2008. (The property came with a house, which Guite has torn down.)

A wealthy out-of-stater who likes to play farmer in his spare time and pays less in property taxes than many mobile home owners, Guite is a poster child for what’s wrong with a current use program that cost Vermont taxpayers $59 million last year. That’s money the state had to make up elsewhere, or at the expense of other programs.

When current use was rolled out in 1980, it was with the best of intentions. Farmers feeling economic pressure to sell off land to developers could have their tax burden eased. Forestland, which was also eligible for the program, could be preserved, too.

Thirty-five years after its inception, the amount of land in current use has soared from less than 120,000 acres to more than 2.4 million acres, according to information on the Vermont Department of Taxes website.

Nearly 15,000 landowners are now enrolled in what the state passes off as a land conservation program. But what it often conserves are the bank accounts of property owners like Guite, who operates VTel out of Springfield, Vt., but has a mailing address in Greenwich, Conn.

Without the generous tax breaks that current use affords the state’s land barons, Vermont would resemble Route 12A across the river in West Lebanon. At least that’s the scare tactic used by supporters of current use in Montpelier.

But as Joe Biden would say, that’s a bunch of malarkey.

Which brings me back to Guite.

The 11 grand or so he’s saving annually in property taxes might not be as galling if he wasn’t already feeding at the public trough. In 2010, the federal government, with the blessing of Vermont’s congressional delegation, doled out $116 million in grants and loans to VTel to make high-speed internet available throughout the state.

But no one, including lawmakers, has a clue whether taxpayers have gotten their money’s worth.

Having Guite as a large landowner, however, seems to have benefited Hartland to some degree — the town is well wired. Still, from my talks with residents I’m not sure he’ll be asked to serve as marshal in its Fourth of July parade anytime soon.

The other day I asked Bruce Locke, a town lister, why Guite was held in such low regard. “He moved the cemetery, tore the house down and posted his land,” Locke said.

That about sums it up.

In case anyone has forgotten (Hartland residents certainly haven’t), Guite waged a three-year legal battle that ended in 2011 when the Vermont Supreme Court ruled that he could move an ancient cemetery on his land to make way for a house that he has yet to build.

Apparently, Guite, who is in his early 70s, is putting his energy into creating a sugarbush. After the saplings were planted, he told the Valley News’ John Gregg that he wanted to build a “model farm that is self-supporting economically as a business proposition.”

He bought the saplings from an upstate New York nursery that was going out of business and planted them as part of a Cornell University experiment. Instead of taking 25 to 30 years to mature, the trees would be ready to be tapped in 15 years.

Last week, I exchanged a few emails with Guite. I asked if he had any idea why the maples had fared so poorly. (After talking with a state forester, I suspect that a lack of watering and weeding could have had something to do with it.)

In his reply, Guite didn’t address the question. But he did let me know that he’s working with an Upper Valley farmer on “migrating all surviving maple trees” to a pair of “maple groves” elsewhere on his property.

He’s also updating the land management plan required by the state that was initially approved in 2010.

Since seeing is believing, I wanted to check on how the maple saplings not visible from the road were progressing. I asked Guite for permission to walk his posted property off Town Farm Hill Road.

“Please respect the No Trespassing signs,” he wrote back. “When we have completed haying and tree work, I would be happy to invite you to visit in 2017.”

I’m looking forward to it. I’ve always wanted to see how to make maple syrup from poison parsnip.

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




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