State House passes bill to aid Connecticut shellfish industry
The state House approved a bill equating sea and land for agricultural property tax breaks on Tuesday after the Senate passed the bill in April. The legislation now goes to Gov. Ned Lamont’s desk.
By a bipartisan vote of 140 to four, the bill moved forward after a short debate. Proponents praised the measure as a boon to the state’s shellfish industry, which suffered from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The legislation would add underwater shellfishing beds and certain waterfront shellfish shipping sites to the list of properties covered under a longstanding state statute known as Public Act 490. The statute allows farmland, forests, open spaces and maritime heritage land to be assessed based on what the property is used for rather than its fair market value, resulting in lower property taxes. It is a land preservation tool to allow owners to keep land that would otherwise be too expensive to hold on to.
The bill also would rename the Connecticut Seafood Advisory Council to the Connecticut Seafood Development Council and would add two members, bringing the total to 13.
Local shellfish farmers are in support of the legislation. It also would extend the farming tax benefits on waterfront property, previously limited to commercial lobstermen, to licensed shellfish shippers and aquaculture operators, as long as at least 50% of their adjusted gross income comes from commercial operations. Some municipal officials are uncertain of how this would affect towns’ tax bases. During public testimony for the bill, the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities and the Connecticut Council of Small Towns opposed the bill, arguing that it places the burden of subsidizing aquaculture on local communities that host the farming operations.
A list of certified shellfish shippers from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration shows one in Noank. Other nearby shoreline shellfish shippers operate out of Stonington, Mystic and Niantic.
The bill would go into effect Oct. 1, 2021. It would not affect the local grand list until the following fiscal year, according to the state legislature's Office of Fiscal Analysis.
In late February 2020, just before the coronavirus pandemic hit Connecticut, local shellfishermen and experts were celebrating the opening and upgrading of several shellfish beds along the eastern shoreline. They said the industry was in a better position to flourish, and surrounding waters would become healthier as a result.
But as state Rep. Patricia Dillon, D-New Haven, said on the House floor Tuesday, she and other legislators know from meetings with the Connecticut Farm Bureau that when restaurants closed during the pandemic, oyster fishing lost 80% of its business “because so much of their business is tied to restaurants.”
Kristin DeRosia-Banick, an environmental analyst with the state’s Bureau of Aquaculture, said in June 2020 that the wholesale business that had made up nearly 100% of the state’s $30-million commercial shellfish industry — mostly bulk sales to distributors and restaurants in New York City, Boston and across the country — was effectively “ripped out” from underneath the state’s 45 shellfish farms.
Connecticut’s shellfish farmers resorted to finding creative ways to make up for those losses, including selling directly to customers more than any other time in decades.
In October 2020, those in the shellfishing farming industry learned they would be eligible for federal government assistance provided to other agriculture industry sectors affected by the pandemic after initially being excluded from receiving benefits in the first round of Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act funding. In lobbying for the change, U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, and the Connecticut delegation cited Connecticut Sea Grant’s determination that “Connecticut shellfish aquaculture has experienced a 93 percent loss in revenue due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”