May 9th marked the end of the Connecticut General Assembly’s 2018 legislative session. Being an election year, this year’s session was short, with many issues in flux until the final day of the session, including the FY19 budget.
Working Lands Alliance is pleased to report that legislators took action on a number of our priorities. We thank them for protecting Connecticut’s public lands, addressing key needs within the Department of Agriculture’s Farmland Preservation Program, and restoring funding for the Agricultural Sustainability Program.
2018 Policy Wins for WLA
SJ 35 – Constitutional Amendment to Protect Public Lands:
The passage of SJ 35 places a referendum question on the November 2018 ballot that would protect state-owned public lands from being sold, swapped, or given away without appropriate public input. The General Assembly is currently able to give away valuable state-owned public lands such as state parks, forests, and state-owned agricultural lands and easements. This is typically done through a conveyance bill that is often amended late in the session without any opportunity for public input (this year was no different with an amendment being raised on the last night of session). If the ballot measure passes on November 6th, it would require that before public lands could be sold, swapped, or given away two essential protections would be in place: 1) all public land conveyance proposals would receive a public hearing, and 2) a 2/3rds vote would be required for lands held by the Department of Agriculture, or the Department of Energy & Environmental Protection. Stay tuned for more information this summer about how to engage your friends, neighbors, and community in support of this initiative.
HB 5534 – An Act Concerning the Classification of Farmland
This bill was introduced mid-session by House Representative Doug Dubitsky and required assessors to remove only the home-size footprint from a land parcel for PA 490 tax purposes regardless of the minimum building lot size. WLA supported this bill, as many small farms will now qualify for PA 490 tax benefits.
HB 5630 – An Act Concerning Revisions to Certain Environmental Quality and Conservation Programs of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection:
This bill contained two provisions important to the CT Department of Agriculture’s farmland protection efforts.
1. Expanding the department’s authority to undertake “Buy/Protect/Sell” projects. Farmland is often lost to development when a farmer or landowner, by choice or necessity, puts his or her land up for sale. While there may be nearby farmers interested in purchasing the property, there may not be a farmer who can afford the purchase price if the land is not already protected. With this new authority, the Department of Agriculture, working in conjunction with a land trust, will be able to act in this type of situation by purchasing the property at fair market value, protecting it with an easement, and selling the protected property to a farmer. This is an important expansion of the state’s farmland protection toolbox, and one that will especially benefit young and beginning farmers who are the most challenged in gaining access to affordable farmland. It is also an important tool for Connecticut’s older farmers and landowners who want to see their farm legacy continue but are not interested or able to work through the easement sale process. Buy/Protect/Sell projects have been used successfully by land trusts in conjunction with state farmland protection programs in a number of other states, including Maine and Vermont.
2. Ensuring that the Department can apply for Agricultural Land Easement (ALE) funding through USDA’s Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP). A name change in the federal program that provides millions of dollars annually in matching funds for the state’s Farmland Preservation Program (formerly known as the federal Farm and Ranchland Protection Program; now the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program) threatened the state’s continued access to federal dollars without this technical correction. Fortunately, this tweak to state law will ensure that Connecticut continues to be able to access federal farmland protection dollars.
CIA Funding and the FY 2019 Budget
WLA worked hard with other members of the Community Investment Act (CIA) coalition this year to prevent any further raids by the legislature on CIA funds. The legislature continued a $5 million dollar diversion to the General Fund from the CIA proceeds in the 2017 biennial budget for FYs ’17-‘19. However, the administrative decision was made to replace funds diverted from the agriculture sustainability account for dairy farms; as a result, the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection was disproportionately cut by $2.3 million in the diversion. While the other three agencies Department of Agriculture (farmland preservation), Department of Economic and Community Development, and the Department of Housing) were cut by $900,000. The DEEP account difference was then replaced with bonding. While this was a practical administrative response this caused consternation amongst the tightly knit coalition.
However, for the Fiscal year 2018, SB 543, section 50 requires the proportionate reduction of funding of each of the programs to achieve the $5 million transfer to the General Fund. Each of the five sectors, including the Ag. Sustainability Account will be reduced equally by $1 million to account for the $5 million diversion to the General Fund.
Additionally, there was a one-time $1 million budget appropriation to the Agriculture Sustainability account to reflect the funding need to provide for current funding of the dairy farm funding mechanism in the wake of the general fund diversions in recognition of the real-time effects on dairy farm business finances of payments made in years.
Finally, WLA was pleased to see the legislature enact a second bipartisan budget (adjustments) before the end of the session – on time.
Current bonding balances will continue to provide ample funding for the Farmland Preservation Program through FY 2019. WLA will seek new bond authorizations for the program in next year’s session.
There’s Always Next Year…
While we celebrate our policy victories this session, there were several policy priorities that were not acted on this session. We will continue to advocate for them in the next session. These policies are outlined below:
WLA testified in support of SB 350 that would have required developers to post a decommissioning bond for solar projects above a certain size on prime farmland or core forest. This provision was opposed by the state’s solar industry, which also sought to change the standard for review of solar projects through the state’s solar siting council. Solar siting is likely to continue to attract legislative attention next year, and WLA will remain at the table, seeking solutions that enable farmers to make use of solar power to enhance their farm’s economic viability while minimizing the footprint of solar development on the state’s most productive farmland.
A Local Option Municipal Open Space and Working Lands Funding Mechanism
SB 181, which WLA supported, would have enabled the city of New London and the towns of Bethany, Bolton and Lyme to establish a fund to acquire, preserve and maintain farmland and open space (including water resources) through the imposition of a conveyance fee of up to 1% on buyers of real estate. While there was significant support for this pilot funding mechanism, the measure was not reported out of the Planning and Development Committee. We will continue to advocate for this local option funding mechanism next year.
On behalf of WLA’s Steering Committee, I would like to thank all of you who helped make this legislative session a success by communicating the importance of these policy priorities to your legislators. Please take time now to thank your legislators for their hard work and commitment to farmland protection; we should all be proud that Connecticut continues to be a national leader in farmland protection!
2018 WLA Letters of Support
2018 WLA Testimonies
2018 AFT Letters of Support