Reducing Property Taxes While Protecting Land and Wildlife

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The Moore Ranch will never be closed to migrating deer and elk.
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Cities benefit from land trusts, too.

This conservation organization helps
property owners reduce taxes while protecting land and
wildlife.

Reducing Property Taxes While Protecting Land and Wildlife

High in the Colorado Rockies, near the little town of
Pagosa Springs, sits the Moore Ranch–a paradise of
mountains and meadows filigreed with sparkling snowmelt
streams. Owners Joe and Beth Moore love it. So do their
cattle. And so do the herds of deer and elk that wander
down each fall from the mountains, crossing the ranch en
route to their traditional wintering grounds in the
sheltered valleys below … only to turn around a few months
later and follow the spring green-up back across the ranch
to their high-country summering meadows. For as long as the
Moores can remember or imagine, this annual circular
migration has been a part of the land.

In recent years, however, the people have come. Herds and
droves of people. And with the people came subdivisions
looking like prairie dog towns, condominiums like anthills,
and a blight of summer ranchettes along either side of the
twisting two-lane blacktop that divides high country from
low. Before much longer, the Moores knew, most wildlife
migration routes would be sealed off by this onslaught of
development, leaving hundreds of deer and elk stranded in
the high country each winter to starve and freeze.
Something had to be done when it came to protecting land, and the Moores were of a mind to
do it.

What Joe and Beth did–with encouragement and guidance
from a San Francisco-based land-conservation organization
called the Trust for Public Land (TPL) and a Pagosa Springs
citizens’ group called Upper San Juan Land
Protection–was to designate a permanent conservation
easement across the 363-acre portion of their ranch that
serves as a wildlife migration corridor.

Land ownership encompasses a bundle of separate
rights-mineral, water, agricultural, development, and
others–with a landowner having the power to sell or give
away some rights while retaining the rest. A conservation
easement is a legal instrument with which the landowner
separates and retires the right to subdivide and develop
the land. Under the terms of the Moores’ easement–which was legally attached to the property’s deed
and thus is binding on all future owners–Joe and Beth can
ranch their land as always, continue to control public
access, and pass the property on to their heirs or sell it
as they desire. But the 363 acres dedicated to the
conservation easement can never be subdivided, developed,
or used in any way that would interfere with its
suitability as wildlife habitat. The Colorado Division of
Wildlife–to whom the easement was granted for
guardianship–will inspect the land annually to assure that
the terms of the easement are being met.

When an easement is donated to a local land trust, the
donor generally is expected to make a contribution to an
endowment that covers the costs of establishing baseline
data, annual monitoring to assure that the terms of the
easement are being met, and enforcement if necessary. The
amount of this contribution, which is tax deductible, is
negotiated with the land trust and is based on the
complexity of monitoring and other anticipated
difficulties. For the Moores’ easement, the main expense
was a “before and after” appraisal to document the value of
the income tax deduction.

The satisfaction of knowing they’ve done something
significant to preserve the land and its watersheds,
wildlife, and agricultural status is the greatest reward
for Joe, Beth, and the numerous other landowners who have
granted a total of 51 conservation easements protecting
66,482 acres in the Rocky Mountains alone. But in addition
to these intangible rewards, the donation of a permanent
conservation easement can also earn significant income,
estate, and property tax benefits for donors. These
benefits are based on the premise that a reduction in the
sales value of the land will result from the development
restriction. Here’s how it works:

When a piece of land’s development value is donated to a
qualifying conservation organization, the monetary
equivalent of this right becomes deductible from the
landowner’s income taxes as a charitable contribution.
Additionally, the appraised value on which the property and
estate taxes are figured may also be reduced. This can mean
the difference between a landowner’s heirs being forced to
sell inherited family land in order to pay estate taxes,
and keeping the farm in the family.

In order to be deductible for income tax purposes, a
charitable easement must meet what is known as a
conservation test. The Moores’ easement qualified because
it protects important wildlife habitat. Other values the
IRS will grant easement deductions for include the
protection of natural ecosystems, the preservation of
outdoor recreational areas open to the public, the
conservation of open space that provides scenic enjoyment
for the public or that furthers an adopted governmental
conservation policy, and the protection of historically
important land areas or buildings (known as preservation
easements).

The second major requirement for tax deductibility is that
an easement must be donated for guardianship to a
qualifying conservation organization-such as a citizens’
land trust (like Upper San Juan Land Protection) or to an
agency of local, state, or federal government (such as the
Colorado Division of Wildlife). Helping people organize
land trusts and teaching them how to assure that their
conservation easements will be legally correct are among
the services performed by the Trust for Public Land.

But not all TPL projects involve conservation easements or
large parcels of land. The Clinton Community Garden in New
York City is an urban Eden of magnolia trees, grape arbors,
and flower and vegetable plots greening a tiny, city-owned
lot.

About six years ago, concerned neighbors rescued the lot
from trash-strewn neglect and converted it into a lush
garden and neighborhood park. When the city later decided
to sell the lot, worth about $900,000, TPL and concerned
Clinton neighbors launched a “Square Inch Campaign” in
hopes of raising enough money to save the garden.

The campaign received substantial media attention,
ultimately raising about $100,000 – an incredible
demonstration of grassroots support, yet far short of the
goal. Fortunately, an intense lobbying effort finally
convinced Mayor Ed Koch that the site was of critical
import to New Yorkers as an urban breathing space. By
executive order, the mayor transferred the lot from the
city’s Division of Real Property to the Department of Parks
and Recreation. The Clinton Garden was saved, and the
$100,000 raised through the Square Inch Campaign was placed
in a fund to maintain Clinton and protect other Manhattan
community gardens threatened with loss of their sites.

A sampling of other TPL-assisted land conservation
projects:

• Working with concerned residents to organize Puget Sound’s
Whidbey-Camano Land Trust. In partnership with TPL and the
National Park Service, this local group has accepted its
first easement protecting a panoramic trail area in the
Ebey’s Landing National Historic Reserve.

• Helping guide the
Thousand Islands Land Trust into existence. TILT works to
protect an area of more than 1,700 islands on the St.
Lawrence River by acquiring easements that restrain the
development pressures threatening to mar the pristine
character of this great waterway.

In addition to working with individual donors and local
conservation trusts, TPL also acts directly to acquire
property that has environmental or public-use significance,
frequently negotiating below-market-value purchases.
Property thus acquired is then conveyed to public agencies
or private nonprofit organizations for long-term
management. Any profit accruing to TPL is used to cover
operating costs or recycled to finance future land
conservation acquisitions.

When asked to summarize his organization’s philosophy,
Trust for Public Land President Martin J. Rosen quoted John
Muir’s visionary statement on growth and preservation: “Not
blind opposition to progress, but opposition to blind
progress.” Since its inception in 1973, TPL has completed
317 park and open-space projects in 25 states, rescuing
over 316,000 acres from just the sort of blind progress
Muir opposed.

If you’d like more information on tax-deductible
conservation easements, forming a citizens’ land trust in
your area, establishing or preserving an oasis of green in
an urban desert, or other ways of protecting significant
land resources, contact the TPL regional office nearest
you.


TPL OFFICES

Headquarters:
San Francisco, CA 

Northeast Office:
New York, NY

Southeast Office:
Tallahassee, FL

Northwest Office:
Tacoma, WA

Southwest Office:
Santa Fe, NM

Ohio Office:
Cleveland, OH

New England Office:
Boston, MA