As the 2021 legislative session begins in Connecticut, Governor Lamont, the Connecticut General Assembly, and key staff are adjusting to a new normal. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the legislative session will be held virtually this year instead of in-person at the state Capitol building in Hartford. WLA is gearing up to promote farmland, the farmers who steward it, and the consumers across the state who enjoy the many bountiful products that they produce.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shed light on the need to invest in local food and agricultural systems now and into the future. As Connecticut starts the 2021 legislative session, WLA will continue to be the voice of farmland protection in Hartford even if we cannot be there in-person this year.
This legislative session is historic in nature, we are forever hopeful by “tending to the crop” this legislative session we will have a “bountiful harvest” on June 9 and seasons beyond. There are also several freshman legislators, many of whom are new to the challenges and barriers farmers are facing across the state. Because of this, we have been busy setting up zoom meetings with new and old legislators and key staff to engage them in the importance of our working lands and promoting a local food economy.
Working Lands Alliance is optimistic that this virtual legislative session will allow those who have not traditionally been involved in the legislative process become more engaged in state policy. We also recognize that this new way of doing business means we have to find new, innovative ways to engage legislators in the importance of our work. The following outlines what WLA will be promoting and supporting as the legislature gears up for public hearings and passing legislation that will impact our working lands and the individuals who care for them.
What we can expect to see this upcoming legislative session:
Farmland Protection Legislation
Working Lands Alliance’s core mission is ensuring that our state’s farmland protection program is fully functioning and funded. The program is funded through lump sum bonding and the Community Investment Act. In this upcoming session, we will work tirelessly with members of the Community Investment Act Coalition to ensure that full funding levels and integrity of the CIA are maintained.
In May 2020, American Farmland Trust released “Farms Under Threat: The State of the States” report. This study shows farmland across the U.S. and in Connecticut continue to be compromised because of development pressures. During a 15-year period, between 2001 and 2016, 23,000 acres of Connecticut’s farmland were lost or compromised by development including urban and high-density residential, commercial, and industrial typically around the edges of cities and towns. This also includes rural industrial and energy production sites, including oil and solar panel installations.
In addition to ensuring that the state’s farmland preservation program is fully funded, Working Lands Alliance supports legislation that will streamline the farmland preservation program application process. By clarifying the role of the State Properties Review Board and the authority that the board has over Purchase of Development Rights, or PDR, applications, WLA hopes to reduce the amount of time it takes for a farmer/landowner to protect their farm with an agricultural conservation easement.
Senate Bill 388– An Act Concerning the Responsibilities of the State Properties Review Board Concerning the Purchase of Agricultural Development Rights introduced by Senator Osten and Representative Gresko will do just this.
We were also thrilled Senator Berthel from the 32nd district introduced Senate Bill 153 – An Act Exempting from the Personal Income Tax Proceeds from the Sale of Agricultural Land Development Rights to the State. If passed into law, this provision will further encourage farmers to sell their development rights and extend the value of state grants in preserving working lands. The income tax exemption will allow them to preserve liquidity from the sale, which can be used to reinvest in the farm, pay down debt, or just build a stronger working capital position for the farm.
In 2020, WLA was honored to be invited to participate in the Governors Council on Climate Change’s Working and Natural Lands Agriculture and Soils Working Group. We contributed to a final report produced by the group that outlines how our working lands and the agricultural sector can help mitigate, adapt, and make Connecticut resilient in the face of climate change.
A few notable items that appeared in the working groups nearly 150 different recommendations were the need to expedite the rate that we are protecting Connecticut’s farmland from development; improve planning for agriculture at the municipal level; develop a statewide soil heath program to help farmers transition to climate-smart agricultural practices; and invest in infrastructure to strengthen our farm to institution sector. While the report was not a comprehensive food and agriculture action plan for the state, it does outlines how our food and agricultural sector are key to combating climate change.
We are hopeful that the Lamont Administration will introduce comprehensive climate change legislation this session that will include some of our working groups recommendations.
- The final GC3 Phase 1 Report can be found here
- The final Agriculture and Soils Working Group report can be found here
WLA submitted numerous letters and public comments regarding the Governor’s Council on Climate Change efforts throughout the process. You can read them below:
- Public Comments on the GC3 Phase 1 report can be found here (Please note WLA worked with other members of the Natural and Working Lands to submit public comment via email and they can be found on page 52 of these public comments)
- American Farmland Trust’s Comments on the Agriculture and Soils Working Group report can be found on page 61-65 here
- WLA’s letter to Commissioner Dykes regarding the need to include our working lands in the report can be found here
WLA also supports Senate Bill 467 – An Act Concerning Soil Health recognizes the health of Connecticut’s soils as an important instrument in climate change mitigation and resilience. Healthy soils are an important asset to Connecticut’s farmers, forest landowners, municipalities, and residents for improved food security and equity, water quality and quantity, and energy efficiency.
Solar Siting on Farmland
While the state strives to meet our alternative energy goals, we must work to strengthen our solar siting requirements so that we are not placing large megawatt solar arrays on our state’s prime and important farmland. Governor Lamont’s Council on Climate Change Phase 1 report identified that as Connecticut deploys large-scale solar projects, it is important that this development does not supersede other climate change mitigation strategies, including the carbon sequestration potential of our natural and working lands.
As of August 2020, the Solar Siting Council has reviewed renewable energy projects on over 540 acres of Connecticut farmland. By comparison, the total farmland acreage protected by the Connecticut Department of Agriculture’s Farmland Preservation Program in 2019 was 773 acres and in 2020 was 1,015 acres.
Working Lands Alliance discussed this bill and why it is so important with the CT Examiner last week. You can read the article about this bill here.
Earlier this month, Representative Maria Horn from the 64th district worked with WLA to introduce House Bill 5175 – An Act Concerning the Siting of Solar Facilities on Certain Farmlands.
If passed, this legislation would do the following:
- Require that the Commissioner of Agriculture review CT Siting Council applications for solar facilities with a proposed capacity of one megawatt or more on prime farmland or farmland of statewide importance, as determined by the United States Department of Agriculture or the Commissioner of Agriculture;
- Require the Connecticut Siting Council to have a member with a background in agriculture;
- Establish a “Greenfields Solar Mitigation Fund” for the purpose of purchasing conservation easements on agricultural lands;
- Require that the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the Department of Agriculture maintain a list of information of current applications on their website for the public to view;
- Require developers to pay into a decommissioning bond for the future removal of solar arrays that are placed on prime or statewide important working lands.
As more people across the Northeast are locating to Connecticut, the price of real estate continues to rise. This has put a huge strain on the housing market according to this recent article on CT News Junkie. American Farmland Trust partnered with the CT Department of Agriculture to release a Farmland Access report that outlines the challenges facing farmland seekers and retiring farmers.
Farmland affordability remains one the biggest barriers farmland seekers face when attempting to gain ground in Connecticut. During the 2018 legislative session, Connecticut passed legislation that enables the state to complete buy/protect/sell farm projects. This means that CT DoAg. can purchase land at its fee simple value, protect it with an agriculture conservation easement, and then sell it to a non-profit or municipality at a discounted rate. The non-profit or municipality can then sell it to a farmer.
Connecticut has some of the most expensive farmland in the nation, the average price of farmland per acre is $12,200 according to the 2019 National Agricultural Statistic Service Ag. Lands Census. This means that Connecticut has the third-highest farmland per acre cost in the country.
The state’s buy/protect/sell is a mechanism the agency can use to swiftly protect land with an agricultural conservation easement and make it available to a new and beginning farmer. As the current statute stands, the agency can only expend up to $2 million annually on these projects. As the current cost of farmland in the state continues to increase as a result of current market real estate prices and many people from outside of the state deciding to call Connecticut home, WLA supports legislation introduced by Senator Rick Lopes, Senate Bill 471 – An Act Concerning Funding for the Purchase of Agricultural Real Estate by the state. If passed this law would increase the amount the agency can expand on buy/protect/sell projects to $5 million annually.
Working Lands Alliance supports House Bill 5100 – An Act Authorizing a Property Conveyance Fee for Open Space Purposes. This legislation would enable municipalities with an option to establish a limited buyer’s conveyance fee program to fund local environmental and land-use programs, including farmland acquisition and stewardship. Farms that are protected through the Community Farms Preservation Program are required to leverage local funds and this tool will create another means for local municipalities to authorize funds towards farmland preservation efforts.
Learn more about this legislation on the CT Land Conservation Council’s website here.
Lastly, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of people across the state still face food insecurity. At the beginning of the pandemic, farmers across Connecticut rapidly responded and pivoted their farming operations to meet the demands of the pandemic.
For many school-age children in the state, the meals provided at schools are one of the only places they receive access to nutritious and healthy food. Working Lands Alliance is committed to making stronger connections between our agricultural sector and the state’s institutions, which include schools.
As a member of the CT Farm to School Collaborative, we are happy to support House Bill 5767 – An Act Concerning Farm to School Programs. If passed, this legislation would set up a Farm to School grants program that will provide assistance to school districts who wish to increase the amount of CT Grown food they procure and serve to school-aged children.
If you are interested in reading all our 2021 Legislative Priorities, please visit this page on our website.
To follow our legislative priorities, receive action alerts, and become more involved with the Working Lands Alliance Steering Committee sign-up for our mailing list here or follow us on Facebook here. For further questions, please contact the Working Lands Alliance director at firstname.lastname@example.org.