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Without the Current Use Exemption, there's really not much we can do on our property. It's one of the reasons why last year we focused on the driveway before pivoting to milling lumber.
But finally, this week, we received confirmation that our Current Use Exemption has been processed and we can start clearing trees!
What is the Current Use Program?
Current Use is a program established in Vermont in 1978 to encourage landowners to actively maintain their land in a more natural manner. Vermont state describes it as:
The purpose of the Current Use [...] Program is to encourage and assist the maintenance of Vermont's productive agricultural and forest land, prevent the accelerated conversion of these lands to more intensive use; to achieve more equitable taxation for undeveloped lands; to encourage and assist in the preservation and enhancement of Vermont's scenic natural resources; and to enable the citizens of Vermont to plan its orderly growth in the face of increasing development pressures in the interests of the public health, safety and welfare
In return for landowners entering into this program, they pay significantly reduced property taxes as the land is valued at a reduced rate. As of January 2022, forest land for example is valued at just $170/acre. Only lots larger than 10 acres are eligible for enrollment, and the enrollment continues even when the land is sold or otherwise transferred.
Forest Management Plan
One consequence of forest land being enrolled in the Current Use program is that the property must have a Forest Management Plan - a legally binding document, compiled by a forester, that lays out the landowner's obligations for managing the forest. This document must be renewed every 10 years.
We bought 40 acres of property in Vermont which was already enrolled in Current Use. As such, shortly after the sale closed, we had to complete a Current Use transfer application and work with a forester to create an updated Forest Management Plan as the existing one was due to soon expire.
This document is actually incredibly valuable as it gave us a lot of really useful information about the composition of our forest - the tree species, ages, viability for lumber making, overall forest health and awareness of issues such as invasive species that we'd need to monitor and tackle.
Current Use Exemption
However, one big restriction of land being enrolled in Current Use is that you cannot develop it - in other words, we couldn't build our house! Sounds like a big problem, but fortunately there is an exemption process.
We spoke with our forester who confirmed that we didn't need to exempt the land for our driveway, since this is really just an improved access road that we use for forest management and to transport forest products such as logs, lumber and firewood. The house site however did need to be removed.
The process involves identifying the portion of the property you wish to exempt, submitting an application to the state, and then paying an exemption penalty which is calculated as 10% of the land's fair market value as assessed by the town. And obviously from that point forward, you begin paying higher property taxes too.
This is something we knew well in advance of buying the land, so while it wasn't a surprise, it was nonetheless a process we had to go through.
Since the cost of removing land from the program is proportional to how much land you exempt, we wanted to identify the smallest possible parcel to remove. Our original plan had been to await the site plan that was underway with our architects and engineers, but since that process was relatively slow, we opted instead to draw a box comfortably larger than the site would occupy, and remove this preemptively.
The total area we removed ended up being more than 2 acres, so we've given ourselves a generous buffer, but this minimizes the chances of us running into issues.
After lots of looking at site plan ideas, satellite views, GIS data and taking measurements on-site, we eventually submitted the application in September last year. We had been told to expect the process to take a month or two, but by November we had still heard nothing.
We began chasing, tracking down contacts until eventually, in December, we spoke to someone in the relevant department at Vermont State who revealed that our application had been lost, but they had found it now and would begin processing it!
Over the next month or so we followed up every few days, tracking the progress of the application and shepherding it from one stage to the next - from the state to the town and back again a couple of times!
I've never been so happy to receive a tax bill, but when that arrived a few weeks ago, it was a huge relief! Finally, after paying that bill, we received confirmation this week that our Current Use Exemption has been processed and the acreage is officially removed from the Current Use Program.
It's hard to overstate the significance of this milestone. This essentially unlocks that area of our property, and means we're free to begin clearing trees as soon as we return to Vermont in a couple of weeks. Without this confirmation, we'd be stuck twiddling our thumbs, unable to start work on the developing the property.
If you find yourself with land enrolled in Current Use and need to remove a portion of it, don't worry! The process is relatively straightforward, but it may take some time. My advice is to find the contact details for the people handling your case at the state and town level, and keep checking in with them to ensure your application is progressing.
For us, it's time to start clearing trees...!