Beware the Use Value Stealth Amendment

by Bruce Shields

The 2012 legislature has just passed, and Gov. Shumlin has signed, a stealth provision of the “Vermont Energy Act” (Act 170) that threatens the future economic viability of Vermont’s farm and forest woodlot economy.

The story goes back to the early 1970s. Rising land values and the resulting higher property taxes were becoming steadily more destructive to farming and forestry. After several years of gestation, the Vermont legislature in 1978 created the Use Value Appraisal (UVA) program. This allows farm and forest land in the program to be taxed at actual use value, rather than at the often much higher market value for development.

Today, more than three fourths of Vermont’s active farmland, and about half of all privately owned forestland, is enrolled. The reduction in the landowners’ taxable value is above 90% for forest land in more than half of Vermont towns, enabling many farms, family owned forestland, and associated wood industries to remain economically productive.

Environmental activists have always favored preventing development of rural land, but they have also yearned to use the UVA tax reduction as a tool to compel participating landowners to accept extensive restrictions on the uses of their land, as for example specifying how many animals any farmer might keep or restricting forestry to non-mechanized harvest.

When the 1997 legislature enacted Act 60, large scale landowners began to enter the UVA program to escape the pressure of the new statewide education property tax. That fact energized the environmental activists to promote ever more stringent controls over how landowners manage their property, citing such concerns as biodiversity, invasive species, water quality issues, management of Total Maximum Daily Loads in agricultural runoff water, and flood control.

On the final day of the 2012 session, the environmentalist-dominated legislature passed a major change to the UVA law. Buried in S.214, “the Vermont Energy Act of 2012” (now Act 170), there suddenly appeared a new section 16(a), captioned “Harvesting Guidelines and Procurement Standards.” Its first paragraph creates a voluntary standard for all timber harvesting to promote “long term sustainability.”

The second paragraph is not voluntary. It gives the commissioner of forests and parks the power and duty to issue regulations to impose “sustainability standards” governing any harvesting “for wood energy purposes” of forest lands in the UVA program, and requires all state agencies that make use of wood energy to buy chips only from compliant woodlots.

The Senate Natural Resources Committee did not alert any representative of any landowner or forestry organization that such a section was being inserted. The legislators took no testimony on it. Commissioner of Forests and Parks Michael Snyder might possibly have raised an alarm, but happened to be away at the crucial moment.

This major intrusion of the State into the operation of private timber management was slipped through totally in the dark, except presumably for the environmental lobby that wanted it and has never had much of a commitment to open government.

In practice, the new state controls will govern impacts of harvesting on “rare, threatened, or endangered species, wetlands, wildlife habitat, natural communities, and forest health and sustainability”, as defined by Agency of Natural Resources officials.

A very feasible interpretation of this last paragraph is to require every operation selling any wood fuel to a State facility, or by extension to any public school or other plant using biomass, to conduct an Environmental Impact Review prior to operations. This would impose on Vermont woodland owners the same regulation that has been used so effectively by environmental activists to stop timber harvesting in Green Mountain National Forest.

The impact of this stealth amendment upon the timber income of UVA property owners is potentially devastating. The health of Vermont’s rural economy depends on rolling back this dangerous law in 2013, before it causes fatal damage to Vermont’s farm and forest land owners.

Bruce Shields of Eden is a woodlot manager, treasurer of the Vermont Farm Bureau, and President of the Ethan Allen Institute.