Land conservation community hails new tax incentive

Members of the local land conservation community are hailing renewal of a tax incentive for private landowners to preserve their property that was included din the recently concluded “fiscal cliff” budget negotiations in Congress.

The tax incentives benefit those landowners, especially working family farmers and ranchers, who preserve their land with a voluntary conservation agreement. The incentive, which had expired at the end of 2011, was a boon to private conservation efforts while it was in effect between 2006 and 2011, said Molly Morrison, president of the Natural Lands Trust (NLT), the Delaware County-based land conservation organization.

“Nationwide, the incentive is credited with a 30 percent increase in the number of acres preserved each year,” Morrison said Monday. “At a time when public investments in open space have been reduced drastically, the incentive is a cost-effective way to encourage landowners—regardless of their means—to consider conservation as an option.”

Conservation-minded landowners now have until Dec. 31, 2013 to take advantage of the tax deduction for donating a voluntary conservation agreement to permanently protect important natural or historic resources on their land. There are also attempts to make the tax deduction permanent.

“This is a good step,” said Andrew Johnson, head of the North American Land Trust (NALT) in Chadds Ford, who added that the renewal was already having an impact on preservation efforts as his organization began getting more interest in conservation agreements since the turning of the calendar.

“When Congress gets involved with an idea like conservation, it reinforces that it is a tool worth using, and not some gimmick,” Johnson said. “If we’d had this in place in 2012, we could have probably conserved twice as much land as we did. We think that we will see (the organization’s efforts) in 2013 as benefitting from this.”

Oliver Bass, a spokesman for the NLT, said his organization had seen twice as many land conservation easements in 2011, the year the incentive ended, as it had in 2012. “That is a pretty startling difference,” he said.

With the incentive back in place, “as this year moves along we expect we will see a pick up of interest again,” Bass said Tuesday.

Chester County commissioners’ Chairman Ryan Costello also praised the renewal, saying that it compliments the county’s efforts to use public funds to preserve open space. The tax incentive is separate from the county’s open space challenge program, but can aid landowners considering participating in the county and state open space efforts.

“By extending this deduction you can keep the opportunity and flexibility for those private conservation organizations to partner with local landowners to preserve their land,” Costello, whose legal background includes land use issues, Costello said Tuesday. “And the more resources you have to conserve land, the more land you can conserve. I think it is welcome news.”

That sentiment was echoed by Bill Gladden, director of the county’s Open Space Program. “It is great news for Chester County and for all conservationists,” he said Tuesday. “It is an important part of how to stretch dollars further to preserve land.”

Both Morrison and Johnson said U.S. Rep. Jim Gerlach, R-6th, of West Pikeland, has already sponsored a bill in the House that would make the deduction option permanent.

“This critical conservation tool has been extremely effective because it benefits landowners who want to protect their property as well as communities interested in working together to preserve exceptional natural resources,” Gerlach said. “Renewing the incentive is a great first step, but it will not be the last.”

When landowners donate a conservation easement to an organization such as Natural Lands Trust, its affiliate Montgomery County Lands Trust, or another qualified organization, or when they work with NALT to conserve their land, they maintain ownership and management of their land and can sell or pass the land on to their heirs, while foregoing future development rights.

The enhanced incentive applies to a landowner’s federal income tax. It raises the deduction a donor can take for donating a voluntary conservation agreement from 30 percent of their income in any year to 50 percent; allows farmers and ranchers to deduct up to 100 percent of their income; and increases the number of years over which a donor can take the deduction from six to 16 years, according to NLT’s press release on the subject.

“Private conservation donations are in our DNA in this region,” Morrison said. “Some of our most treasured open spaces exist today because of the generosity of the landowner. This incentive makes the tax benefits of such donations available to a wider array of landowners.”

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