- Nuisance Laws
- Vermont’s Right to Farm Law
- Required Agricultural Practices (RAPS)
- Use Value Appraisal/Current Use
Following is an overview of some Vermont state laws and programs that might affect a beginning farmer’s decision to purchase or lease land in a particular area. It also looks into which regulations are most important to consider once access to land is secured. Establishing a farm operation can be an enormous undertaking for the beginning farmer, even without complications. Having a good grasp of state regulations can help the farmer avoid or prevent unnecessary stumbling blocks before they become major issues. Knowledge of certain state programs can also save considerable money in the form of tax benefits for the farmer and/or the landowner. This information is not meant to substitute for sound legal advice. New farmers should seek counsel from a qualified attorney when the need arises.
New farmers are encouraged to take advantage of a wide range of land access opportunities, even if it means farming in some rather unconventional places. But what will the neighbors think of you when you are new to the area and you start farming a piece of land that hasn’t been farmed for 40 years? How will homeowners in a residential development act when your pigs get loose and go on a rampage through their hobby gardens? How will store owners in a commercial district feel about your tractor driving down the road and blocking traffic? Needless to say, it makes sense for farmers to farm in agriculture-friendly areas. Where different land uses coexist, it is important for farmers to know both their rights and their limitations so grievances or lawsuits can be avoided.
While typical agricultural activities are exempt from local zoning regulations, Vermont law protects community members from nuisances or activities that interfere with their ability to use and enjoy their property. Agricultural activity is unfortunately a common target. Nuisances can be classified as either interfering with private interests or interfering with public health and safety. The court will find the activity to be a nuisance if it can be proven that the activity is “unreasonable” and substantial. Courts are more likely to deem the activity “unreasonable” if it is malicious and inexpensively avoidable.
Vermont’s Right to Farm Law
This law presumes that most farming activities are not a nuisance unless proven otherwise by a party bringing a lawsuit. To have the right to farm within this thin safety shield, the agricultural activity must meet all of the following conditions:
- It is conducted in conformity with federal, state, and local laws and regulations;
- It is consistent with good agricultural practices;
- It is established prior to surrounding nonagricultural activities; and
- It has not significantly changed since the commencement of the prior surrounding nonagricultural activity.
For beginning farmers coming onto the land for the first time, item # 3 (above) is especially important. The condition states that a farmer can’t ordinarily be considered a nuisance if the farm operation was in the area of dispute first. It was designed to limit encroachment of urban and suburban development into farm areas. The flip side is that the beginning farmer hoping to set up a new operation in previously non-farmed areas should be cautious—the Right To Farm Law will not grant the farmer protection in nuisance disputes when the surrounding non-agricultural activity was there first. Regardless of when the farming operation first arrived, the Right to Farm presumption can be refuted if there is evidence that the farming activity has a substantial adverse effect on public or private health, safety, or welfare, or a “noxious and significant interference” with the use and enjoyment of the neighboring property.
Required Agricultural Practices
Vermont’s Required Agricultural Practices (RAPs), established in 2016, are standards to which all farms must be managed to reduce the impact of agricultural activities to water quality. The RAPs include required practices and management strategies, some of which apply to all farms and some of which are specific to certain sizes of operation or to certain environmental factors.
The Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Farms and Markets offers a number of information resources, technical assistance and financial assistance to help farmers understand what is required and implement appropriate practices and strategies on their operation.
Vermont’s Use Value Appraisal Program (Current Use)
Vermont’s Use Value Appraisal Program, also known as Current Use, provides a tax incentive for eligible farm and forest landowners to keep land in agricultural and forestry production. Land enrolled in the program is taxed at its agricultural or forestry “use” value instead of the current fair market value., resulting in significant property tax savings. The state determines this “use” value annually based on the economic return from agriculture or forestry. As of the fall 2016, 2.4 million acres, about 44% of Vermont’s 5.4 million acres was enrolled in current use.
While enrolled, the land cannot be developed, and must remain agricultural or forest land. To enroll landowners must submit an application to the Vermont Tax Department’s Current Use Land program. The law specifies eligibility requirements for both forest and agricultural land that applications must meet in order to be approved for current use status.
Current use is important for beginning farmers because it can help reduce the cost of owning or renting land. Depending on the size of the property, having it enrolled in the program can result in significant annual savings for the land owner tax payer, often thousands of dollars.
Additionally, landowners can qualify for the tax benefits if they lease their land to a “farmer” with a 3-year, written lease agreement. More information about Enrolling Leased Land in Current Use.
A word of caution, however: there are fee penalties associated with subdividing or developing enrolled land, which would trigger a mandatory withdrawal from the program. Depending on how long the land is enrolled before the change, the penalty, known as the Land Use Change Tax, could cost more than the savings from having the land enrolled. Therefore, it has significant implications for how a farming landowner decides to balance personal and agricultural or forestry uses of the land.