The Northeastern state’s tax program saves dollars and farmland.
Farmland preservation in Connecticut is the very definition of being stuck between a rock and a hard place. But for the conservation ethic of the state’s residents, it would be almost impossible to preserve farmland against its very imposing development pressure.
And yet the state has been successfully preserving farmland since 1978 despite urbanizing pressure from its neighbors. Connecticut is in the shadow of New York City to the southwest and Springfield and Boston, Massachusetts, to the north. The engine that runs the effort is a partnership between state government, local municipalities and local land trusts.
The tax savings to state farmers are considerable. As each property tax filing deadline approaches, operations that are enrolled in one of the many programs realize the short-term financial benefits of preservation programs. Those farmers’ grandchildren will reap the long-term benefits.
Read more: Tax strategies for ag enterprises
Using agricultural conservation easements, the Connecticut Department of Agriculture Farmland Preservation Program, along with its partners, has permanently preserved 42,000 acres on 322 farms. In addition, they have two large agricultural preserves – owned outright by the state – portions of which it leases to area farmers.
The larger of the two, Southbury Farms, is a 920-acre parcel, 400 acres of which are open fields. “It used to be unprotected state land,” said Cameron Weimar, director of Connecticut’s Farmland Preservation Program. “We are in the process of granting a permanent easement on the property to a land trust.”
Land trusts are local, nonprofit organizations that have the purpose of either holding easements to preserve land or assisting in acquiring easements. In 1986, the Connecticut Legislature created the Joint State-Town Farmland Preservation Program, enabling towns to partner with the state to purchase farm development rights.
That’s a pricey venture in Connecticut. Highly developable land in western Connecticut sells in the $25,000- to $35,000-per-acre range. Land restricted to farming in the same region costs $4,000 to $5,000 an acre.
Connecticut towns have a tool to take the sting out of best-use values. The law allows farms to be assessed according to their current usage values.
Held by the state, local governments or land trusts, Connecticut’s conservation easements are funded by state and federal grants as well as bonds.
“They are the bread-and-butter of our program,” Weimar said. “We [the state] hold the easements to allow farmers to stay on the land, actively farming.”
Farmers who apply to the original state program must be actively farming and the farm’s soils must consist of a high percentage of prime or important agricultural soils. Which soils are prime or important is determined by the USDA’s Natural Resources and Conservation Service’s Web Soil Survey.
Then the state performs a title search. “Any land taken into our program must have a clear title,” Weimar said. “If it is owned by a corporation, it must provide a current operating agreement saying all owners agree to the easement.”
Should there be any liens, the banks that hold them must subordinate them. “Most of the time, banks are accommodating because farmers will receive considerable compensation, which can be used as debt service or to otherwise improve the farm’s profitability,” he said.
In the event of the property changing hands as a result of the landowner’s death or retirement, easements follow the land title. “Our easements are permanent,” Weimar said.
Read more: Figuring the puzzle of crop insurance
Even when farms are being farmed and they have the necessary soils, they still may not qualify for the original state program because they are too small. That’s where Connecticut’s towns and land trusts tend to enter the game.
For example, a group of state citizens who were concerned with the state’s inability to save farms too small to be listed under its farmland preservation program created the Connecticut Farmland Trust (CFT). “Sixty-four percent of the Connecticut farms are 49 acres or less,” said Elisabeth Moore, CFT’s executive director.
CFT is a private, nonprofit dedicated to preserving small farms from development. “Farms ranging in size from 30 to 40 acres are our sweet spot,” she said.
The bulk of the trust’s easement holdings are located near Lebanon in New London County, one of the state’s northernmost counties, where much of its remaining agriculture lies. Most of the easements it holds are for “dairy support” farms, where hay and feed grains are grown.
Other enterprises in the trust’s portfolio include several orchards, a Christmas tree farm, a greenhouse operation producing vegetables and bedding plants, and a 20-acre, award-winning goat cheese endeavor, to name a few. All the land is protected by conservation easement.
CFT holds easements for 2,750 acres on 33 farms. “We work with local land trusts and towns,” Moore said. “We have also helped the state to acquire easements for another 1,000 acres.
Read more: Farmland protection programs coming of age
“Usually, when we work with the state,” she said, “we come to the table with foundation money we’ve found as well as local, state and federal grants.”
Currently, they are buying a farm adjacent to an agricultural education center, both of which are located near a high-end commercial strip. “We’re purchasing the farm, restricting the deed and selling it to the education center for $1,” she said. “It’s their only opportunity to expand.”
A town’s tools
Ten years after CFT was founded, the state purchased a small-acreage farm under a new program, the Community Farms Preservation Program. “It uses different criteria than our main program,” Weimar said. “These are farms important to their communities that wouldn’t score in our original program.”
These farms should be important to the local economy, actively engaged in producing food and fiber and contribute to the development of the community, he said. This is the program CFT primarily uses in its partnerships with the state.
Another tool Connecticut towns can use to aid in farmland preservation is called an agriculture commission. Typically, it is a group of local people who take steps to assure the business environment in their towns foster the existence of farming in nearby areas.
One way they do this is to convince the local municipality to adopt a right-to-farm law. Generally, right-to-farm laws forbid litigation against farms and their normal operations based on claims alleging that they create a public nuisance.
The state of Connecticut has declared that “no agricultural or farming operation, place, establishment or facility, or any of its appurtenances, or the operation thereof, shall be deemed to constitute a nuisance” provided the operation is following generally accepted agricultural practices (Appendix B, CGS 19a-341).
Generally accepted agricultural practices are determined by the commissioner of agriculture. Towns could consider enacting local right-to-farm ordinances to emphasize their support for local farms and farm businesses. In conjunction with an examination and subsequent update of local regulations that may hamper farm businesses, a local right-to-farm ordinance reaffirms a town’s commitment to agriculture and identifies farming as an accepted and valued activity.
As long as farmers use accepted agricultural practices, they cannot be sued for the occurrence of things like noise, odors, chemical applications and the like. Unlike Connecticut, most laws of this kind are statewide provisions enacted by their legislatures.
Public Act 490 is yet another tool agriculture commissions can use to aid in local farmland preservation. A state provision, it allows municipal tax assessors to value area farmland at current use versus best use.
“The program applies to land and not buildings,” Weimar said.
Other actions agriculture commissions can take include monitoring zoning, master plans, and local ordinances to assure they are friendly to the community’s active farmers, Weimar said.
Why it all works
Farmland preservation fails when the non-farm public believes its cost is too high or so high they do not wish to fund it.
In Connecticut, however, the preservation ethic is very much a part of the state’s culture. Consider that there are 169 towns in Connecticut and 130 of them have local land trusts.
The state finances its easements from a combination of real estate taxes, state-issued bonds and an array of federal and state grants and private money. That happens because Connecticut citizens have done an effective job of convincing their lawmaking bodies that farmland preservation is a priority for them.
Read more: Lending a helping hand