Before leaving town on the train headed for Silverton, riders enjoy views across 1,000 acres protected by conservation easements.
While the city of Durango is already about 30 percent open space, an improving economy and love for the landscape is motivating more people to donate their private development rights, said Amy Schwarzbach, executive director of La Plata Open Space Conservancy.
For lifelong Durangoan Rosalie Phillips, her decision to give up her private rights was driven by seeing the open space around Durango dissolving.
“Everyone comes to Durango because they love wilderness, but then, they destroy it in that process,” she said.
So, when she decided to donate her rights to the La Plata Open Space Conservancy, it was motivated by love for the land her grandfather ranched, not by a state financial incentive.
Phillips is far from alone in her conviction to ensure that no future buyers can develop her land.
This year, the La Plata Open Space Conservancy received 31 inquiries about placing land in an easement, and about 15 to 20 of them are strong candidates, Schwarzbach said. In the past, she has had between five to 10 inquires per year.
Statewide, the annual pace of conservation has slowed over the past two years, but in some regions, more landowners are starting to show interest, said Amanda Barker, acting executive director of the Colorado Coalition of Land Trusts. Across the state, coalition members have protected about 2 million acres total. In 2013, the state approved $28 million in tax credits.
Landowners can receive up to $375,000 in tax credits each time they donate development rights, but they must prove leaving the property undeveloped would protect critical habitat, scenic byways and the watershed, among other qualities.
While La Plata County rancher Lawrence Bartel’s land qualified for many of these reasons, he placed his 350 acres in Thompson Park into an easement to help preserve his family’s legacy.
Land is being subdivided all around his active ranch, but Bartel has legally preserved the whole upper valley forever.
“I want people to be able to look down on this valley and see it much as it has been for a long time,” he said.
While tax credits may not motivate some landowners, they make a big difference in some cases, Schwarzbach said.
Landowners qualify for tax credits based on the difference of what their property could be worth if it was developed to its fullest potential compared to its worth with a conservation easement. But the cap of $375,000 poses a problem for landowners who may wish to donate development rights of large ranches over a thousand acres in the most desirable areas of Colorado, Schwarzbach said.
One of the ways landowners can receive more tax credits is by donating their land in stages – one parcel each year. In this case, the Division of Real Estate would evaluate every piece of land individually.
This has become a bit inefficient, and the state may consider ways to limit the phasing in the future, said Chris West, chairman of the Conservation Easement Oversight Commission.
“It makes conversations take a lot longer and cost a lot more,” he said.
The Colorado General Assembly passed a law in 2013 to prevent fraud and gave the statewide commission and the Division of Real Estate authority to approve easements in 2014. Previously, the Department of Revenue reviewed applications.
A state audit sparked the realignment and led to the creation of a statewide cap on incentives of $45 million.
Schwarzbach supports the strict oversight and, on the local level, works with one other staff member to make sure the owners of 208 easements are maintaining land as they agreed. The requirements follow the land as it is sold.
Selling private land protected by an easement can be challenging because the requirements can change the value of the land in the eyes of a potential buyer, said John Wells, founder of The Wells Group. So he urges consulting professionals before agreeing to establish a conservation easement.