1.26.2018 – The Vermont Housing and Conservation Board

One of the really positive and encouraging things we, as legislators, get to do during the course of our work is to get updates on programs that have been successful in their mission. One such program is the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board (VHCB), which last year celebrated its 30th anniversary.

The original statutory policy, findings, and purpose language in Title 10, Chapter 15, Section 302 (a) says “The dual goals of creating affordable housing for Vermonters, and conserving and protecting Vermont’s agricultural land, forestland, historic properties, important natural areas, and recreational lands are of primary importance to the economic vitality and quality of life of the State.”

The VHCB offers fifteen different programs including Farmland Conservation; Forestland, Recreational Land, and Natural Area Conservation; Home Ownership; the Vermont Farm and Forest Viability Program; Vermont Lead Paint Hazard Abatement/Healthy Homes; AmeriCorps; Historic Preservation; Community Planning and Technical Assistance; Water Quality Grants; and Housing Opportunities for Persons Living with HIV/AIDS, to name a few.

An important aspect of VHCB’s work is farmland conservation. Keeping our farmland viable is very important to Vermont’s working landscape. Our working landscape is important because it provides the beautiful backdrop that visitors come to Vermont to experience. During the thirty years between 1987 and 2017, 164,000 acres on 701 farms have been conserved. All of these farms continue to be in active agricultural production and means that 11% of prime agricultural soils statewide are protected. Easements include wetland and riparian buffer protections, so important to water quality.

When farmland is conserved the development rights are purchased, which can allow established farmers the opportunity to reduce long-term debt, improve their infrastructure, or to even retire. Access to land is one of the most often cited barriers for young farmers to establish their own farm. This allows new farmers to buy land at more affordable prices.

Along with farmland conservation, VHCB has conserved 265,000 acres of working forests, natural areas, and recreational lands. The Forest Viability Program offers workshops to forest products business owners that increase their skills in production and operations management, accounting systems, financial analysis, strategic planning, and finding resources or specialists. Participants report that after taking the workshops, their knowledge in those areas increased significantly and that they saw a 15% increase in gross income, a 2% increase in employment, and a 9% increase in payroll.

This is especially important because the forest products industry is critical to the state’s economy representing 10,555 jobs and $1.5 billion in economic output. This includes tourism and value-added manufacturing, not to mention the contributions our well-maintained forests make to clean air and water.

Concern has grown for our forest products industry with the closure of several low-grade facilities in Maine. Our loggers were selling to those plants and now, with their elimination, loggers in Maine are looking for markets in our neck of the woods, increasing pressure on Vermont loggers.

Investments in infrastructure to utilize low-grade wood would go a long way to help the forest products industry but we have to be strategic in where those investments are made. For instance, we don’t want five wood pellet plants within a 25-mile radius of each other or forest depletion and higher transportation costs will be the result.

In 2017, VHCB was instrumental, along with the Vermont River Conservancy, in helping to conserve the Rainbow Rock Swimming Hole in Chester. Our committee member, Rep. Tom Bock of Chester, remembers taking his children to the swimming hole and how it deteriorated over the years. Having heard about the conservation, he now plans to take his grandchildren there when they visit. Rainbow Rock is within walking distance of the village so it is an important community resource. The representatives from VHCB said that they would love to see a swimming hole in every town in Vermont.

VHCB is also very active in improving water quality. They have adopted Water Quality and Flood Resilience Guidelines that are incorporated in their Conservation of Agricultural Lands policy, so going forward these standards will be part of the consideration as farmland is conserved. Before closing on farm easements, water quality and farm health are addressed in Agricultural Land Easement managements plans. The Farm and Forestry Viability Program has awarded more than $400,000 in water quality grants to fourteen farms and $629,364 in dairy improvement grants to twenty-five farms. The $629,364 leveraged an additional $2.66 million. This is critically important because farmers are willing to do their part but with low milk prices, they need help making the necessary improvements.

I have focused here on VHCB’s work on farm and forestry lands, water quality, and community resource projects but they do much more as well. Their work on housing has been extremely important with regional outreach meetings in Bellows Falls, Burlington, Hartford, Manchester, Middlebury, and St. Johnsbury. They have awarded $9.5 million in Housing Revenue Bond funds for eleven housing developments in ten communities and 310 homes in five counties. Currently, 86 units in three developments are under construction.

VHCB also has had an AmeriCorps program for twenty years. AmeriCorps members were particularly helpful after Tropical Storm Irene and recently partnered with the Randolph Area Community Development Corporation to steward fifteen acres of floodplain forest. This was a learning experience for participants regarding the value of such land beyond scenery or habitat. Its value as a sponge to absorb water during flood events protected the downtown community during Irene.

The Vermont Lead-Based Paint Program is part of VHCB’s work, as well. It “provides financial and technical assistance to income-eligible landlords and homeowners to reduce the risk of lead poisoning caused by lead-based paint hazards”. High blood lead-levels in children have a terrible effect on development and ability to learn.

The work of VHCB has been remarkable over the last 30 years. There were times that the land conservation work they do wasn’t always appreciated and politics reared its ugly head. It was seen as an easy target to rob for other purposes but in recent years the need for housing, water quality improvements, and farm and forestland protections have become very evident and their work is more appreciated.

If you or someone you know is thinking about conserving their land or could use their other services, VHCB can be reached by calling 802-828-3250 or on-line at info@vhcb.org. They are located at 58 East State St., Montpelier, VT, 05602.