More than 55 towns in Vermont have created Conservation Funds, with the oldest fund having been established in Norwich more than 45 years ago. One of the primary purposes of these funds is to leverage conservation monies from other sources, protect wooded, farm and open land, and to reflect townspeople’s commitment to conservation. Very importantly, conservation funds can serve as seed money to garner dollars from the state, the Vermont Land Trust, other land conservation organizations (such as the Open Space Institute) and the federal government (such as the National Park Service). Towns such as Richmond have found that an assessment of $.01 (one cent) on the tax rate has generated almost five times as much money as that raised by the town itself with $287,000 in taxes resulting in $1.3 million in matching funds. Other towns, like Essex, have appropriated a flat amount, such as $15,000 which works out to just $1.68 per homeowner. In addition, the Trust for Public Land showed that every $1.00 invested in land conservation by Vermont returns $9.00 in economic value in natural goods and services, food production, flood mitigation and water quality protection. Other methods for financing conservation funds include harvests from town forests (Randolph and Hartford), sale of parts of a town forest (West Windsor), private donations, small fund-raising activities that generate less than $100 (such as voluntary donations at hikes in Cornwall) to special events such as a “rain barrel” event in Essex that generated $1760.
Details of Funding Mechanisms in Vermont Towns
According to the Association of Vermont Conservation Commissions, most Vermont municipalities use town appropriations to finance their conservation funds, and these appropriations are most often requested annually. The cost per town citizen for these appropriations is quite low. In 2012, Fayston initiated its conservation fund with a $10,000 allocation, which worked out to about $7.00 per person. As mentioned above, in 2018, Essex added $15,000 to its conservation fund, which cost the average homeowner just $1.68. Towns such as Bristol, Charlotte, Essex, Fayston, Hinesburg and Warren all use this mechanism of appropriation.
Alternatively, some Vermont towns use an assessment on the tax rate to finance their conservation funds, with the amount ranging from $.0025 (¼ cent; Bolton) on the tax rate to $.02 (two cents; Monkton and Weybridge) on the tax rate. Some towns, such as Bolton, vary the assessment in different years. For example, Bolton’s rate varies from ¼ cent to one cent. Among other towns that use a tax rate assessment are Georgia at ½ cent, Richmond at 1 penny, and South Burlington at 1 penny. Depending on the size of the town and the tax base, the amount raised ranges from about $12,000 per year in Georgia to $280,000 per year in South Burlington. Some towns, such as Weybridge, started their conservation fund with limited funds ($1,000 in the case of Weybridge), and moved to a tax rate based system to generate additional funds. Within the past two years, some towns have increased the assessment amount, with Montgomery voting an increase of ½ cent on the tax rate to finance their Conservation Fund.
Other towns such as Stowe do not allocate a specific annual amount, but determine the amount to appropriate based on the project proposed.
Towns with forests, such as Randolph and Hartford, transfer logging revenue into their conservation funds. For example, timber sales in Calais netted $16,500.
Conservation Funds Help Towns Generate Additional Conservation Monies
A primary advantage to establishing and financing conservation funds in Vermont is to access other monies. In nearby Bristol, the Town has invested $15,849 from its Conservation Reserve Fund to support land acquisition, streambank stabilization, buffer planting and invasive. Species management projects that cost more than $173,600. In other words, for every dollar spent from the Bristol Conservation Reserve Fund, the town was able to leverage $11 in grant monies from state and federal agencies as well as private and corporate donations. As of 2016, the Town of Charlotte had spent $1.6 million from its conservation fund yet had received an additional $6.7 million in other funds for land conservation. East Montpelier has used $166,000 to garner more than three million dollars, conserving 2899 acres in the process. Similarly, as of December 2019, Randolph has spent $287,000 to gain $1.3 million in matching funds.
A study completed in Charlotte showed that conserving land is actually less expensive than residential development because residential development leads to higher costs for public services. In addition, individual donations to conservation funds normally qualify as charitable contributions, which may entitle the donor to a charitable income tax deduction.
Having funds already available in a conservation fund allows rapid reactions to funding opportunities, before the chance is lost forever. One town without a conservation fund, Shrewsbury, needed twelve years including many dead ends, to cobble together funding for conserving a 526.7-acre parcel that became the 100th WMA in Vermont in August 2020. The area is used by black bear, bobcat, moose, deer, upland bird species and migratory songbirds, and connects state land to the north with federal and privately conserved land to the south, creating a state-significant wildlife corridor.
Finally, Town funds already committed to conservation can motivate private donors to give more generously because the Town has proven its commitment to conservation. For example, in 2017 Newbury voted to appropriate $25,000 to buy 636 acres, including Tucker Mountain, which led to more than 115 individual donors from Newbury and the Upper Valley contributing $100,000.
Uses of Conservation Funds to Reflect Town Priorities
Conservation funds closely reflect the priorities and special circumstances of each town and the uses vary widely. Brattleboro generally carries a balance of $50,000 in its Agricultural Land Protection Revolving Loan Fund and has used the balance for loans in the past. In 1989, Williston used its Fund to build a manure pit. Both East Montpelier and Williston have each conserved more than one thousand acres. Other towns, such as Bristol and Waitsfield, spend funds on recreational goals.
The names of the conservation funds also vary according to town priorities. Names such as Open Space Reserve Fund, Agricultural and Natural Areas Fund, Agricultural Land Protection Fund, Farmland Protection Fund, Conservation Reserve Fund, Environmental Reserve Fund, Conservation Trust Fund, Conservation Legacy Fund and lastly, Restroom, Recreation and Conservation Fund all suggest slightly different town priorities.
What kinds of projects might the Cornwall Reserve Conservation Fund support? They will reflect us and what we feel is important and is needed. Townspeople love the rural nature of the town, with its open fields and limestone ledges, forest blocks and abundant wildlife. Having Conservation Reserve Fund monies will help us protect and continue to enjoy these invaluable resources.
Vermont towns have been very successful in leveraging monies in their Conservation Funds to garner additional outside dollars, with many towns raising five to ten times the amount to complete specific projects. Cornwall now has the opportunity to do the same, having created its Conservation Reserve Fund and appropriated monies into the Fund.