Adam Caira / Staff Photo Dick Staudt and Jane Staudt browse the dessert table at the East Montpelier town meeting potluck at East Montpelier Elementary School on Tuesday. Each resident who brings a dish receives a meal voucher, and anyone who doesn't bring a dish can purchase the meal for $5.
EAST MONTPELIER — Residents voted Tuesday to dissolve a decades-old program credited with conserving some of the town’s brightest agricultural gems. But while town leaders say the move won’t set back efforts to preserve working lands, some townspeople are worried about the financial impacts on at least one well-known farm.
Created in the 1970s, the so-called Farm Contract offered tax abatements to the East Montpelier farmers whose large tracts of open land were rising sharply in value. The program resulted in slightly higher tax rates for other residents but prevented agricultural operations from selling their parcels into development solely because they were unable to afford property taxes.
“We’ve conserved a lot of lands in this town,” Austin Cleaves said during a town meeting that drew more than 200 residents to East Montpelier Elementary School. “I do believe that way back in the 1970s when we enacted this program, that was the beginning of it all.”
The conservation movement caught on across Vermont, and by the early 1980s the Legislature adopted a statewide program — called Current Use — that offered even more substantial tax relief to the owners of farms and forestland.
East Montpelier, however, was one of only two municipalities left in the state with its own town-specific abatement program. And an 11-person committee formed to examine the issue concluded that the Farm Contract is an unnecessary redundancy that forces the town to absorb property tax giveaways that could otherwise be funded by the state. The town would save an estimated $15,000 annually by folding the program.
Also, committee members said, the landowners enrolled in the Farm Contract would enjoy far more substantial tax breaks if they moved into the state Current Use program.
“We’re not out to hurt anybody with this,” said Ed Deegan, a member of the committee that spent a year looking at the issue. “We’re trying to get a winning situation for everyone.”
Among the dissenting voices in the committee’s 9-2 vote recommending that the town end the program, however, was one belonging to the son of Allen Butler, owner of the Butler Farm. No one from the Butler family was at town meeting Tuesday, and no one was available to talk at the farm afterward.
But East Montpelier resident Tim Carver said Gary Butler’s “no” vote reflected his father’s unwillingness to sign on to the Current Use program, something that would require an inspection of the land by agents of the state. Putting an end to the Farm Contract program, Carver said, could put an end to the Butler Farm.
“You don’t want to see them put up condos,” Carver said.
Seth Gardner, chairman of the Select Board, said he’d spoken with the Butlers. “They just aren’t comfortable being involved with the state in that nature,” Gardner said of the family’s reluctance to enroll in Current Use. “We’re sometimes resistant to signing on with government, and I think that’s basically it.”
But Gardner urged residents to approve the dissolution of the Farm Contract program nonetheless, saying the Butlers stand to save “significant amounts of money” if they get over their apprehensions and enroll in Current Use.
Carol Johnson, a neighbor of the Butlers, said she’s spoken with Allen Butler about the situation and that he seems pretty immovable.
“I don’t want to see him get hurt,” she said.
Others in the crowd said they worried about the possible unintended consequence of pushing ahead with the plan and questioned whether it might result in the loss of one of the area’s few remaining working farms.
Residents considered an amendment that would have closed the Farm Contract program to new landowners but allowed people already enrolled to remain. The amendment failed.
“Current Use is the modern program, and if you can’t be a part of that, then you really have to find some other way to make a living, I think,” said Stephen Miracle, a member of the Farm Contract study committee. “That’s the harsh reality of it.”
The issue was among the few topics that generated any controversy Tuesday. But after nearly an hour of debate, the town seemed almost unanimously resolved. The article passed on a floor vote that drew only a handful of nays.
Gardner said the decision won’t result in any immediate dismissals from the Farm Contract program and that landowners will be permitted to exercise the remainder of their 10-year contracts with the town.
“So there’s years for people to get their minds around the concept and get the paperwork ready,” Gardner said. “We’re all going to help them enroll (in Current Use).”
In an afternoon meeting dedicated to East Montpelier Elementary School, voters approved a $3.38 million budget, up 2.4 percent over last year’s request. In Australian ballot items, voters approved a $1.5 million municipal budget, as well as a $36,775 appropriation to Kellogg-Hubbard Library.
In two contested races, Kimberly Kendall won a two-year term on the East Montpelier School Board, and Kari Bradley won a three-year term on the U-32 board.MORE IN Central Vermont
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