During our audit, we held discussions with officials from the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources’ (MDAR’s) Agricultural Preservation Restriction (APR) Program and with program participants. Although many of the participants expressed satisfaction with the program, several brought to our attention problems they had experienced with obtaining certificates of approval (COAs).
In one instance, a farmer received a COA from MDAR to build a farm stand on APR Program farmland. As construction neared completion, a utility company needed an easement to gain access to the utility pole next to the farm stand. However, MDAR was reluctant to grant the easement. As a result, there was a delay in getting electricity to the completed farm stand, and the farmer had to engage an attorney to help settle the matter.
Farmers participating in the APR Program who want to construct renewable energy systems on their APR Program properties must obtain a COA from MDAR. Output capacity of a system cannot be greater than two times the documented historical or projected annual agricultural electricity use on the APR Program farmland. Many farmers with whom we spoke voiced displeasure about MDAR’s limit on energy output and the agency’s restrictions on where systems can be located on APR Program property. One farmer who spoke with MDAR about building renewable systems on two different occasions experienced resistance from MDAR, which would not allow the proposed construction to proceed. The first situation occurred when the farmer had been approached by an energy company to construct a system on a five-acre wooded parcel of the APR Program farmland that would never be used for agricultural purposes. The farmer planned to use the system for his own farming needs and to sell any additional energy to the energy company. The energy company was willing to pay the farmer $25,000 per year for 25 years. Recently, the same farmer wanted to build a renewable energy system on top of the existing farmhouse and nearby barn structures. Because the estimated output would exceed 200% of the documented or projected farmland electricity use, MDAR was not willing to approve that plan and instead suggested a scaled-back version of the system that would keep it within the 200% threshold and would have a better chance of being approved. Because of the delay and the onset of the spring farming season, the farmer was reluctant to go forward with the proposal.
Many farmers also stated that they believed MDAR had been unnecessarily hostile to proposals to host agritourism activities on APR Program farmland, such as weddings and farm-to-table dinners, which the farmers believe provide important opportunities to help them sustain the financial viability of their farms.
Some APR Program farmland owners complained that through its COA process, MDAR has limited their ability to use their farmland to generate other revenue that would help keep their farms financially viable. For example, one APR Program farmland parcel owner started a brewery on the non–APR Program portion of his farm in 2011. As his brewing operation grew, he wanted to construct a building that would eventually include the brewery on the APR Program parcel because of the parcel’s proximity to an existing farm stand. However, MDAR denied the farmer’s COA request to construct the new building because of an MDAR policy that would require that at least 50% of the products used to produce the beer come from the farm, which, according to the farmer, was not possible. The farmer then tried to negotiate with MDAR to do a land swap in which he would put another non–APR Program parcel into the APR Program and have the land where he wanted to locate the building removed from the APR Program contract. However, according to the farmer, MDAR took too long approve the land swap, and because the delay was putting his brewery business in jeopardy, the farmer ultimately decided to construct the building in another location.
MDAR provided the following comments regarding this appendix:
We note that the APR Program is a regulatory program and that it is the Department’s responsibility to ensure that the Commonwealth’s and the taxpayers’ interests are implemented and addressed. In addition, because many APRs are jointly financed with the federal government, the Department is obligated to ensure that the federal government’s requirements are also followed. The comments reported in this section are provided without any context; the data on Department activities show denials of requests for approvals to be rare. However, the Department remains committed to working with APR program participants to find solutions and implement continuous improvements to the program.
This appendix was intended to further illustrate the issues some farmers have encountered in obtaining approval from MDAR to build structures or conduct agritourism events and activities on APR Program farmland. We support MDAR’s efforts to bring greater transparency to the COA and special-permit process, as evidenced by the listening sessions it has recently held. We concur with MDAR’s stated commitment to improve farmer education, which will help strengthen MDAR’s and farmers’ understanding of the goals of the APR Program.
|Date published:||August 22, 2018|