Act 250 needs an overhaul

The Vermont laws that govern opening an on-farm business are too complicated and too restrictive.

A farmer who would like to open an on-premises business has one big initial question: Can we do this without triggering review under Vermont’s intense land-use law, known as Act 250?

To be exempt from Act 250 review, the farmer currently must demonstrate that, either in terms of annual sales or in terms of weight or volume, the “qualifying products” to be sold are “principally produced” on the farm.

If that sounds somewhat imprecise and complicated to you, you might be interested to know that the Natural Resources Board, which administers Act 250, agrees with you.

In a report to the new legislature, the board recommends that the legislature consider clearer and less restrictive requirements while also recommending an educational component.

Proposed changes would do away with the measurement of sales price, weight and volume, and would focus rather on types of products.

The changes could expand the definition of these “qualifying products” by including non-agricultural products such as merchandise with the farm’s logo on it.

Changes also recommended for consideration would allow on-farm businesses to co-sell qualifying products obtained from other Vermont farms. This would add a new income stream for all participating farms.

The Natural Resources Board also recommends an increase in educational efforts to train farmers in the creation of these on-farm businesses with the intention of reducing the occasions for conflicts such as the one that has surrounded Peace Field Farm.

It’s important to note that these expanded Act 250 exemptions are being recommended by the same people who run the Act 250 process.

Public protections provided by local zoning and other state and local regulations would remain unchanged.

I expect that legislation prompted by these recommendations will be the subject of spirited testimony before numerous legislative committees and I intend to follow developments closely.

Vermont lost 35 farms in just the past two years and we have only 530 farms left. Open farm acreage has been reduced by 109,000 acres in the past 25 years.  That decline, of course, directly threatens the rural scenery that is the foundation the State’s current primary industry, which is tourism.

I grew up on a fourth-generation family farm, and keeping farmers in business is particularly important to me. Following the severe economic recession of the early 1980s, coupled with the fact that federally funded crop insurance was not available back then, my parents lost our house, our farm, our land and our livestock. It took them 17 years to get back on their feet. I don’t want to see anyone else have to go through that experience.

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