Action taken by Congress last month making federal tax incentive for conservation easements permanent could spur lower-income landowners or farmers to apply.
Land owners can now deduct up to 50 percent of adjusted gross income as a charitable contribution for 15 years rather than 30 percent for five years.
The change can help with the estate planning of those trying to decide “what do you have happen to the land after you pass,” explained Dan Holmes, director of state policy for the Piedmont Environmental Council.
He said it could also broaden the appeal of the program to a broader spectrum of landowners.
Extending the time period to 15 years gives the program “a sense of stability in making that decision,” he said. It was also made retroactive to Jan. 1, 2015.
The federal incentive was first enacted as a temporary provision in 2006. It led to 2 million acres of land being conserved in the U.S. and of 668,000 acres in Virginia.
In 2014, 31,366 acres of Rappahannock County were in easement.
Chris Miller, PEC president, said in a news release that “Congress has been fiddling with this provision for a decade, and making the enhanced incentive permanent has been a priority for us and for land conservation advocates all across the country.”
He added the PEC hopes the action will encourage the placing of more land in conservation protection,
Land owners retain the right to farm, hunt, lease and sell the conserved land, subject to the terms of the easement. It remains on county tax rolls. The voluntary agreements to limit other uses of the land in order to protect its conservation value.
Conservation easements are slammed in some quarters by those who believe large, rich landowners primarily benefit, that they do little to promote actual farm activities, restrict the owner in how the land can be used or improved, and that putting some land in easement development forces development into other areas.
But those who see benefits rather than drawbacks were effusive in their praise of Congress’s action.
Rand Wentworth, president for the Land Trust Alliance, called it “the single greatest action in decades to support land conservation. It states, unequivocally, that we as a nation treasure our lands and must conserve their many benefits for all future generations.”
Miller of the PEC said, “In our region alone, more than 375,000 acres are permanently conserved. These lands are also key to environmental protection – helping reduce sprawl, cutting down on impervious surfaces, and providing cleaner streams and cleaner drinking water supplies.”
The PEC is a regional organization in nine counties that promotes land conservation, heritage preservation, sustainable energy, wildlife habitat, and takes positions on growth, transportation and utility expansion issues.
Holmes of the PEC said applying for and being granted the tax credit for an easement “is not a fast process. It can take a year. Land assessment, whether these are proper lands for an easement, water quality, habitats – all these have to be figured out long term.”
He said he thought the extension of the deduction for 15 years would move more land owners to act. “I expect more people to see the benefits and want to take advantage of it.”
There are different easement holders – programs under which landowners can apply to conserve their land, Holmes explained.
In Fauquier County, the Virginia Outdoor Foundation Open Space program had 66,692 acres in easement as of November 2013, according to the Fauquier County government website. It’s the organization with the largest amount of acreage in easement. Others include the Nature Conservancy, the Land Trust of Virginia, Fauquier County and the PEC.
A separate program is the Purchase of Development Rights under which the Virginia provides matching funds to counties to purchase development rights from landowners while they retain ownership and use of the land for agricultural, forest, recreational or open space.