As we come down the homestretch of the 2022 Legislative Session, loose ends are being tied up. Committees of Conference have been appointed for the large bills and progress is being made on finalizing, perhaps the most important bill, the 2023 Budget Bill. Typically, that is the last thing to pass, but it may spend some time in a holding pattern as other important bills come in for a landing.
In the House Agriculture and Forestry Committee (HAFC), we have returned the two Senate bills (S.188 and S.258) that they sent us, and our hope is that they will concur with the changes that we made. We are waiting for the Senate to return our Housekeeping Bill (H.709) and understand that they have made some changes to it.
One change that may be included is a provision that would waive the mitigation fee for prime agricultural soils at the Franklin County State Airport in Highgate. The details surrounding this issue have been very interesting to learn about.
The original bill, H.610, would waive the requirement to pay the ag mitigation fees for the prime agricultural soils at the Highgate Airport. We learned that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has authority over the airport, and they do not allow agricultural activities on the airport grounds for a number of reasons, including security and safety. After 9-11, all of the state airports were fenced in for security purposes. Additionally, growing agricultural crops often attract birds and other wildlife, which poses a danger to airplanes taking off and landing. At this time, only aviation-related activities are allowed at the airport. One might point to the fact that the Franklin County Field Days have been held there for many years, which is true, but they have been notified that that cannot continue, and they will have to move.
What is exciting is that there is an opportunity for aviation-related development at the Highgate Airport. The town has invested big money in bringing water and sewer infrastructure to the airport area and there is a plan to extend the runway to accommodate larger aircraft. We also understand that there are several companies interested in developing on the airport grounds, and while the details are not public at this point, we have been told that there is the possibility for 1,200 jobs being created. This is a significant opportunity for Franklin County.
It should be explained that when land with prime agricultural soils is developed for something other than agriculture, a mitigation fee needs to be paid to the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board so they can use the money to conserve agricultural soils elsewhere. This policy is something that many of us strongly support as food security and the ability to feed ourselves become more and more important. The fact that the land at the airport can never be used for agriculture again and the mitigation policy came into effect after the airport’s existence, makes an argument for waiving the payment.
However, it occurred to me that this proposal represents significant economic development for Franklin County, and while the hope was to offer a gesture to the developers by waiving the mitigation payment, it also seemed to me that we should be willing to pay the fee that we ask others to pay. For that reason, the idea to find the money to cover the cost has been proposed and we are in the middle of negotiations as to where to find it. At the time of this writing, it is looking like it will be in the budget.
The soil at the airport is two categories of Missisquoi Sandy Loam, numbers six and eight. Soil in those categories is mitigated at a two to one ratio. In other words, for every acre of soil to be mitigated, two have to be paid for. At that rate, the cost for mitigation would be in the neighborhood of $300,000. In the recently passed Act 250 revision bill, H.234, we allow for the forest products industry to mitigate prime ag soils at the rate of one to one. If we extend that to the airport development, the cost would be half that.
At the end of the week, I head for West Friendship, Maryland, for the Sheep and Wool Festival, which is happening after a two-year pandemic-related hiatus. It is a huge amount of work but one of the largest sheep and wool festivals in the country so, hopefully, we will come back with a good chunk of income so that we can pay the hay and grain bills for a while.
While I’m gone, I’ll be monitoring what’s going on in the Legislature and in my committee via phone calls and text messages. It makes for some interesting times to figure out strategy while driving down the New Jersey Turnpike and setting up my booth. Thankfully, I have my son, Ben, who can go with me and help.
As I ponder the near future, I am more concerned than ever about food security and the importance of agriculture to the State of Vermont. I believe the ripple effects of the war in Ukraine are going to have a dramatic impact on the availability of food on a world scale. It may not be the people of the state of Vermont who go hungry, but prices could increase even more than they already have.
Additionally, as we witness the pandemic-related influx of people from other areas who are looking for the quality-of-life Vermont has to offer, people who may not understand what farming is all about and what it entails, I fear that there will be more conflict. The recent Vermont Supreme Court ruling regarding an Addison County farm, in part due to the odor of their manure pits, indicates to me that we need to do a serious update of the Right to Farm Law.
We want to make sure that everyone can enjoy their property, but it needs to be clear that if you move in near a farm, there is a strong possibility that you will smell manure from time to time. This is the cost of producing our own food. It should also be pointed out that our farmers are now responsible for 96% of the phosphorus reduction in Lake Champlain and that their soil health practices are reducing more carbon emissions than the electric vehicles owned in the state of Vermont. Farmers are feeding us and they are doing their part in cleaning up our air and water.