PRESTON – At Town Meeting, local officials and farmers discussed at an expansion of the existing tax exemption for farm equipment and a symbolic local “Right to Farm” law. Both were passed by a show of hands.
Gary Piszczek, chairman of the Preston Conservation and Agricultural Commission, said at a town meeting Thursday night that goal of the ordinances is to conserve and preserve Preston’s identity as a “breadbasket community” instead of a bedroom community.
“It’s a unique town with an agricultural history and tradition that includes some of the best Holstein genetics in the country, the best vegetables and tomatoes you’ll have anywhere, yogurt, dairy products, beef, pork, poultry, wine, sheep, Christmas trees, and hay to feed livestock all over southern Connecticut,” Piszczek said. “That is what this is trying to help preserve.”
Connecticut has had a law exempting a minimum value of farm equipment from property taxes since 1959. The law set a threshold of $100,000 in assessed value in 1985, and has allowed municipalities to offer exemptions of up to $200,000 in assessed value since 2001.
For a smaller farm, exempting up to $100,000 of equipment could be significant, Connecticut Farm Bureau director Joan Nichols told CT Examiner. But given that one tractor can be valued now at more than $250,000, the law hasn’t kept pace present-day costs.
Nichols said the cost of farm equipment has gotten to the point that she believes the exemption should be expanded statewide.
But for now, towns can choose themselves to expand the exemption to $200,000, a little bit of help that can go a long way for Connecticut farms running on thin margins, she said. By her count, 26 towns have approved the expanded exemption, including Preston.
Lynwood Crary, a fifth generation farmer in Preston, said the list price of a new hay baler was $7,400 in 1980. Today, a similar baler would cost $34,400 – more than four times as much.
Presenting data from the town assessor, Crary said there are 26 property owners with farm equipment in Preston, with a total value of $1.36 million. Nine of those owners have farm equipment worth more than $50,000, he said.
If enacted today, expanding the exemption to $200,000 would affect four property owners, including one with $201,730 worth of equipment. Crary said that and the other five are just a few pieces of equipment, or just one small tractor away from exceeding the $100,000 limit.
“The days of [a tax break] on $100,000 of farm machinery making a significant impact on a farmer’s tax bill are gone,” Nichols said.
Crary said that Preston was a “cow town” when he was growing up. In 1984, there were 15 dairy farms, he said, showing a map of the locations of each farm in Preston. But because the price of milk hasn’t kept up with the costs of running a small dairy, he said only two of those 15 dairy farms are still active.
“Connecticut is a wicked tough state to do business in, especially in farming,” Nichols said. “We have astronomical input costs for farmers across the country, but in Connecticut we also have higher labor and transportation costs, so any little bit a town can do to relieve some expenses is a help.”
Crary said the assessor’s data showed the expanded exemption would take $223,580 off the town’s grand list, taking off about $5,113 in revenue at Preston’s current mill rate. He said 400 respondents to a recent survey from the Planning and Zoning Commission overwhelmingly said the rural character and “country living” was what they liked the most about Preston – and the exemption is a small cost to preserve that.
“That’s why exemptions like this are important,” Crary said. “Is it going to keep people from going out of business? No. It’s an extra $1,000 or $2,000 a year maybe. But overall it will help everybody.”
The Right to Farm ordinance already approved in Preston mirrors a statewide Right to Farm Law that Connecticut passed in 1981 as a safeguard for farms in rural areas of the state that were seeing an influx of residents not used to the smells and noises that come with farming.
The law protects farmers who are following accepted agricultural practices from lawsuits over five nuisances: odors, noise, dust, chemical use and water pollution – except pollution of drinking water supplies.
“It basically gives the Commissioner of Agriculture full jurisdiction when these types of cases come up to decide whether the farmer is following generally acceptable agricultural practices,” Nichols said.
The state law covers all 169 cities and towns, but by Nichols’ count, 31 towns have passed their own Right to Farm ordinances. The town ordinances are more symbolic than practical. They’re a “policy statement” from the town, re-affirming that the town is welcoming to agriculture, Nichols said.
“I think the most important thing an ordinance does, if it’s written properly to mirror state law, is remind the municipality of a state statute that’s floating around out there whenever an issue comes in that’s related to one of the five nuisances,” Nichols said. “Land use officials will go, ‘Oh, wait a minute, we have a Right to Farm ordinance, let me read that before I go any further.’”
Crary said he had a complaint about his farm because of a fly problem after manure was spread on a field. Not sure where to go with the complaint, they called the UConn Extension, who sent a representative to look.
Crary said the extension representative said everything was okay, but it wasn’t clear how it should have been handled. The Right to Farm ordinance makes it clear that if someone contacts the town with a complaint, they’ll direct it to the state Commissioner of Agriculture, he said.
Nichols said Right to Farm isn’t a “get out of jail free card” for farmers. They still have to follow local land use regulations, wetlands laws, and agricultural regulations. Mostly, the ordinance sends a message to the community.
People who aren’t from farming areas might be attracted to rural towns for the quiet and open landscapes, but don’t expect what the town will smell like when farmers are spreading manure, or that they’ll occasionally be sharing the road with tractors, Nichols said. On the other hand, a Right to Farm town could be a draw for someone who sees benefits in living near farms.
“As we get more and more pressure on our farms and farmland across the state from residential development, for somebody that may be considering buying a house in a farming community, [the Right to Farm ordinance says] be aware we respect and support our farms,” Nichols said.