Congressman Gerlach continues push for conservation tax break

Evan Brandt/21st Century Media Photo U.S. Rep Jim Gerlach, R-6th Dist., gets a Marshlands t-shirt from Mjika Smith, 14 and her brother Zeb, 11. The shirt says “the Marsh is muddy.”

EAST NANTMEAL — The pending expiration of a federal tax incentive for land conservation has added a sense of urgency to efforts to make the incentive permanent.

Despite the bucolic setting of June 26’s rally — held at the “Great Marsh” preserve off Route 401 — that sense of urgency was evident among the several speakers from a variety of conservation organizations who have successfully used the incentive to preserve sensitive wetlands, woodlands and farmland open space.

“There are 11,000 acres of preserved land within three miles of this spot,” said Bill Kunze, who runs the Pennsylvania office of The Nature Conservancy.

“Let’s get this done. Without it, places like this may not be preserved,” said D. Andrew Pitz, executive director of the French and Pickering Creeks Conservation Trust.

The Marshlands preserve, as its known, is the most biologically diverse wetland in Southeast Pennsylvania and one of only six sites Chester County considers “most critical” in its 2000 Natural Area Inventory.

Perhaps that’s because in addition to being habitat for 155 bird species, five of which are either rare or endangered, nine species of fish and more than 200 species of flowering plants, it is also the headwaters for Marsh Creek, an important tributary of Brandywine Creek, which serves as the primary drinking water source for Wilmington, Del.

In addition to its ecological importance, it is also important as fertile, arable land and there is also a goodly portion of the property that is rented out to farmer Bill Beam.

“I can’t tell you how important it is to make sure we don’t lose more farmland,” Beam said.

“There’s not a lot of land left,” said Beam, who has traveled the world at the behest of the U.S. Agriculture Dept., to review global farm practices and resources. “The land that is left, has issues, whether it be soil type, climate or water. It’s all important, I stress that, all important, that we preserve these high value farms.”

One of the best tools for preserving such properties is the conservation easement, a legal device which keeps the property in the hands of private ownership, but creates permanent protection by selling development rights.

The finances of these easements, however, can be tricky and there is often a gap between what a conservation organization can afford to provide, and the market value of the development rights.

It is a gap that can be, and often has been, filled by providing a federal tax credit for the donation of the land or easement.

Sherri Evans-Stanton, director of the Brandywine Conservancy’s Environmental Management Center, said between her organization, Natural Lands Trust and Montgomery County Lands Trust, the region had benefitted from 106 donations of land valued at $94 million from 2006 to 2012.

“That’s impressive,” she said. But that in 2012, the one year the enhanced tax incentive was not in effect, the number of donations dropped to a seven-year low — just two donations.

The tax incentive is something Gerlach has long championed.

In 2011, he spoke at a similar rally at a preserved farm on Neiffer Road in Limerick.

Since then, the incentive had actually expired, but Gerlach helped get it included in the fiscal cliff bill which passed this year and make it retroactive.

However, it expires again at the end of 2013.

Gerlach’s ultimate goal, he told the small crowd gathered on the lawn out front of a house whose first foundations were laid in 1707, is to make the incentive permanent.

However, the House Republican leadership has a complete overhaul of the federal tax code in mind, and making any permanent changes before than happens is unlikely, Gerlach said.

Unfortunately, it is legislation that has wide bipartisan support, said Gerlach, noting that the last bill to make the incentive permanent had 311 co-sponsors out of the House’s total population of 435 and this year’s effort already has 135 members signed on.

“My fellow House members support it for one simple reason, it works,” Gerlach said.

But because it means a loss of roughly $100 million per year to the Treasury Department, it is unlikely to pass at a time when Washington’s political agenda is so closely focused on taxes, spending, debt and other fiscal matters.

“It’s pretty clear to me that the members of Congress recognize the value of this incentive, but we need to keep this on their radar screen while comprehensive tax reform is discussed,” Gerlach said.

In the meantime, the push is on to get it extended once again.

And given the complexity, politically, fiscally and procedurally, of getting comprehensive tax reform through both houses of Congress and on to the president’s desk for signature, Gerlach said “we should push for the maximum extension that we can.”

Jim Moore, whose family worked over the course of many difficult years, to get the Marshlands property preserved, said the legislation Gerlach has proposed would have made that effort much easier.

“Open space is really about the next generation,” Moore said. “We preserved this land because we love it and want to share it, not because we could get a tax deduction. However, the tax benefits made the easement donations more feasible for us.”

“Preserving places like helps preserve our land and water,” said Moore. It’s good for families and its good for communities. I urge swift passage of this bill.”

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