Dummerston backs farmland preservation

Friday August 23, 2013

DUMMERSTON -- The town’s Selectboard has thrown its support -- as well as some cash -- behind an effort to preserve an historic farm.

But the decision came only after debate about the financial impacts of that effort, including potential tax losses arising from long-term conservation of the 169-acre Cassidy Farm.

In the end, the board’s votes on the matter were unanimous, with Chairman Zeke Goodband saying the project’s benefits far outweigh any possible drawbacks.

"It’s a beautiful farm," Goodband said. "And if it’s used as a farm, maybe for generations to come, it will add value to the town, I believe."

Vermont Land Trust has led the charge to preserve the property, also known as Bunker Farm, after administrators heard that it might be advertised for sale.

While developing a plan to purchase the farm and limit development there in perpetuity, the trust also solicited business plans from anyone who might be interested in working the land and eventually owning it.

Trust administrators chose a consortium of local residents Noah Hoskins, Helen O’Donnell, Mike Euphrat and Jen O’Donnell from among 11 applications.

Doing business as Bunker Farm LLC, they plan a "midsized diversified farm" producing meat and poultry; vegetables; specialty annual and perennial plants; and maple sap and firewood.

They also will offer educational and community programming. The group is leasing the property and, if all goes as planned, will purchase the farm in March 2014.

In announcing the agreement with Bunker Farm LLC in July, administrators said Vermont Land Trust was using "bridge financing" to buy the farm from Larry and Marilyn Cassidy and "must raise the necessary funds before selling the farm to the LLC subject to a conservation easement."

"This easement will ensure the long-term protection of the Bunker Farm and its affordability to future farmers," the trust said in the announcement.

The deal requires extensive fund raising. A small part of that is a contribution from the town, so Dummerston’s Farmland Protection Committee asked the Selectboard to authorize spending $18,000 from the Farmland Protection Fund.

"No additional town monies will be needed for this project," committee members wrote in a letter to the Selectboard. "A contribution from the town’s fund is important to VLT’s effort to get a $396,000 grant from the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board and for its campaign to raise $106,000 in private donations to pay for the project."

The committee added that, "while the Farmland Fund request for this project amounts to less than 2 percent of the total project cost, approval of the funding would signify tangible support from the town, and that is important to other funders who will provide the bulk of the necessary monies."

Selectboard member Lewis White suggested a $15,000 allocation instead, noting that there is about $42,000 in the Farmland Protection Fund.

"I think the message still gets out that we’re supporting it with the $15,000 rather than the $18,000," White said.

"Look how long it’s taken just to get up to $42,000. Instead of putting all our eggs in one basket, let’s spread it out," he added. "I’d rather not spend almost half of our allotment on one project."

Selectboard member Steve Glabach agreed, saying the town should conserve as much money as possible for other potential farm-preservation projects.

"I would hope that this would spur more interest in the community in doing something like this," Glabach said.

But others debated the wisdom of shaving a few thousand dollars off the town’s contribution.

"I just think someone might read between the lines that there’s some lack of full support," said Vern Grubinger, a member of the Farmland Protection Committee.

The Selectboard’s eventual vote was 5-0 in favor of the $18,000 contribution.

The board also voted unanimously to pen a letter of support for the project. That letter had been requested by Vermont Land Trust Regional Director Joan Weir, who wrote that the Selectboard’s support is required for the trust’s funding application to Vermont Housing and Conservation Board.

Dummerston Planning Commission already had written a letter of support, saying preservation of Cassidy Farm is the type of project that is "clearly supported" by the town plan.

"The fact that this land neighbors other conserved lands including the Falk and Rockefeller properties makes it all the more important to conserve and continue in farming," planning commission members wrote. "When this project is completed, a total of 306 acres will be conserved in this scenic valley."

But before committing their support, Selectboard members discussed how the conservation effort might impact the town’s tax proceeds.

There was no clear answer. Goodband said one "best-guess" estimate showed that, if the new owners successfully appealed the farm’s valuation, their tax bill might decline by less than $3,000.

Farmland Protection Committee member Jack Manix urged Selectboard members to look beyond those numbers.

"I appreciate the board’s efforts, as fiscal conservatives, to look into that matter," Manix said. "But sometimes, it’s important to look at the big picture."

"What we’re doing here is taking one of the key farms in the town and sort of bringing it back to life," Manix added. "Which is pretty rare across the state ... when a farm is abandoned, and it is developed, it is lost forever."

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.


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