A boon to land preservation, tax credits due to expire Dec. 31

Posted: August 08, 2011

By 8 a.m. on most summer Saturdays, visitors have picked the blueberry bushes clean at Don Hawthorne's 28-acre farm north of Limerick.

Once winter rolls around, the tiny Christmas tree saplings he's tending will have matured and will be sawed, trimmed, and ready for neighboring families.

Since 1974, Hawthorne and his family have opened their land year-round to residents of this growing section of northwestern Montgomery County. But there were days in recent years when he questioned how long he could possibly keep it going.

"The area was growing. We were surrounded by new housing developments," said the 69-year-old lanky beanpole of a man. "I worried our farm would be shingled over."

Hoping to preserve the bucolic property where he had spent most of his adult life, Hawthorne signed a conservation easement agreement in 2009 with the Montgomery County Lands Trust.

Under the terms of the contract, he gave up all development rights during his ownership and that of anyone who buys the farm in the future. In exchange, he received tens of thousands in federal income-tax credits.

Such agreements - made possible through the U.S. tax code - have become an increasingly popular tool in enticing landowners to preserve their open space, local land conservationists say. But their continued existence is in jeopardy, with the provision establishing them set to expire at the end of the year.

"For a surprising number of large landowners, the value of their property is tied to family, legacy, and quality of life - not how much they can sell it for to a real estate developer," said Molly K. Morrison, president of the Natural Lands Trust, the Philadelphia area's largest conservation organization.

Federal lawmakers first approved the conservation easement tax credit in 2006, allowing landowners who donated development rights to conservancy groups to deduct 50 percent of their income on their taxes instead of the 30 percent traditionally applied for charitable donations. Farmers and ranchers could take up to a 100 percent deduction.

Almost immediately, it quickened the pace of open-space preservation across the country, conservation groups say. Since the credit was established, voluntary land conservation efforts have swelled by one-third, resulting in the preservation of more than 1 million acres a year nationwide, according to the Land Trust Alliance.

But the provision - which costs the U.S. Treasury about $115 million a year in waived revenue - has required near-constant renewal from Congress, including a reapproval process last year that ran well past the tax credit's intended expiration date.

Local conservationists said that although they felt confident a renewal would pass, the longer the process took, the less eager landowners like Hawthorne were to sign over their development rights.

"It discouraged some people who were considering easements. Our donations were down last year," said Sherri Stanton-Evans, director of the Brandywine Conservancy Environmental Management Center. "When landowners donate conservation easements to preserve their land, they are voluntarily giving up value in what for many is their greatest asset."

Congress finally renewed the credit earlier this year, but with the stipulation that it expire again Dec. 31. And with lawmakers under a mandate to slash spending and raise revenue amid the debt crisis, its future is uncertain.

U.S. Rep. Jim Gerlach (R., Pa.) has introduced a bill that would make the conservation easement tax credits permanent. And with a bipartisan coalition of sportsmen, outdoor enthusiasts, farmers, nature lovers, and more than 270 cosponsors backing him, he said he felt confident he would find the support it needs despite the tough economic times.

A companion bill has been introduced in the Senate.

"You only need 218 votes to get a bill passed in the House," said Gerlach, whose district - which covers parts of Chester, Montgomery, Berks, and Lehigh Counties - contains more than 83,000 acres of preserved open space. "The odds are pretty good that if we can get it to the floor, it's going to pass."

Accompanying Hawthorne on a recent blueberry-picking expedition, Gerlach - fingers blue with juice - marveled at what a small conservation tool can preserve.

"It's a tremendously practical way to provide tax relief to property owners while helping preserve natural resources," he said.


Contact staff writer Jeremy Roebuck at 267-564-5218, jroebuck@phillynews.com, or @inqmontco on Twitter. Read his blog, "MontCo Memo," at www.philly.com/montcomemo.

 

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