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Ease property taxes or help young farmers?

Selectboard takes closer look at Agricultural Land Protection Fund

BRATTLEBORO—Many a town leader in charge of building a municipal budget has said that each budget item has its advocates.

As the Brattleboro Selectboard wades through keeping property taxes manageable in fiscal year 2015, programs like the Farm Protection Fund are eyed as potential sources for tax relief.

The board voted Dec. 3 to place the question of repurposing the Agricultural Land Protection Fund’s $95,169 balance for tax relief in fiscal year 2015 before Town Meeting Members, March 2014.

Discussion prior to the board’s vote raised the question of whether repurposing the fund would leave young farmers without crucial monies to buy land.

According to Interim Town Manager Patrick Moreland, Town Meeting Members approved the revolving loan fund in 1985. The loan acts as a lender of last resort for farmers looking to purchase land. Only two farms have used the loan in its 28 years.

Selectboard Chair David Gartenstein asked that repurposing the land protection fund be placed on the board’s meeting agenda.The town is facing a tax increase due to rising costs and repaying the bond for the police-fire facilities project.

Gartenstein said he is searching for additional funds for broad-based tax relief, and no farmer has utilized the fund in about 15 years.

“We certainly want to encourage local agriculture,” said Gartenstein, adding that the town shows its support through a farm tax stabilization program.

The town must also consider easing the tax burden on residential property owners, as residents really can’t afford the real estate taxes, he said.

Charlie Robb Sr., of Robb Family Farm, said farmers have more avenues now for purchasing land — or as he described it, “to get money to hang yourself.”

Robb said he appreciated the town establishing the loan fund but that, “I truly believe we’re all set.”

Jesse Kayan of Wild Carrot Farm leases land with three other farmers from Fair Winds Farm and the Earth Bridge Community Land Trust.

As a young farmer without land, Kayan said he had a different point of view than the older, more established farmers.

The farm protection loan fund provides valuable bridge funding, Kayan said. Often farmers experience a lag between when land becomes available and when they acquire traditional sources of loans and funding.

Land can become available quickly, usually when a farmer dies, said Kayan. The opportunity will be “sold out from underneath [farmers]” lacking capital funds.

Kayan said he understood the town’s financial issues but urged the town to consider leaving some money in the loan fund.

Jay Bailey of Fair Winds Farms suggested leaving the original seed amount, $50,000, in the account and take the interest for tax relief.

The fund, although only used twice, has proved useful, said Bailey. “In my experience, you just never know when something may be needed.”

Nancy Miller of Cortland Hill Orchard agreed with Bailey, saying the fund might prove crucial for young farmers.

Following the vote, farmers gathered in the second floor hallway outside the Selectboard Meeting Room.

Kayan said that the town sent mixed messages by wanting to get rid of the fund.

The environment of who takes up farming is different than is was 15 years ago, said Kayan. Established farmers likely have the capital and land they need.

Dean Hamilton of Whetstone Valley Farm said his family used the Agricultural Protection Fund when it sought to expand the farm many years ago.

The fund provided short-term resources, Hamilton said. The municipal loan added credibility for the family to gather the additional monies to close the sale.

“At the time that we used [the loan fund], it was critical,” Hamilton said.

The opportunity for the Hamilton family to buy additional land came fast, he said. “Buy it or lose it.”

Caitlin Burlett of Wild Carrot Farm said her farm is looking for its own land. “I could definitely see us using this fund in the future,” she said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #233 (Wednesday, December 11, 2013). This story appeared on page A3.

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