Landowners promise an unchanging, open landscape when they place a conservation easement on their property, and now, in return, Congress has guaranteed them the assurance of an annual tax break.
On Dec. 18, Congress showed an uncharacteristic 318-109 bipartisan vote that makes tax incentives for conservation easement donations permanent, retroactive to Jan. 1, 2015.
“It’s a game-changer,” said Amy Schawarzbach, executive director for La Plata Open Space Conservancy.
A conservation easement covenant, also known as a land trust, was enacted in 2006 to encourage landowners to protect important natural or historic properties from development by offering a state and federal tax advantage.
In exchange, current and future landowners whose property qualifies enter a permanent agreement restricting development, thereby saving important sites from condominiums or other high-density growth.
Since 2006, Congress has voted every year to reinstate the tax incentive, creating uncertainty whether property owners who donate their land for the public good would continue to benefit from the covenant.
“You change the value of your land (by placing a conservation easement), and you’re making a forever promise that can be very scary if year after year you don’t know what the financial benefit will be,” Schawarzbach said.
“This (vote) means it’s there, and it’s there to stay.”
Schawarzbach said some land owners are approached by developers with very enticing offers. But some of those lands are scenic vistas enjoyed by the public or are critical areas for water quality. The land trust is another conservation tool landowners can use to reduce taxes on the property, while at the same time, ensuring the land is protected forever.
Durango residents may not notice the landmark sites safe from development because of conservation easements. But most Durangoans enjoy those places everyday: Horse Gulch, Dalla and Overend Mountain Park, as well as Oxbow Park and Turtle Lake.
In all, La Plata Open Space Conservancy holds 20,000 acres across seven counties in Southwest Colorado and New Mexico, and helped other similar groups protect another 10,000 acres. And it has been a busy time for the conservancy, Schawarzbach said, with 37 landowners contacting it in 2014 interested in preserving their property.
With Congress’s December vote, she expects even more.
“It really is a game- changer for a lot of landowners,” she said. “When you sit down with your family and talk about leaving a legacy: (a conservation easement) protects what is often the greatest asset a Colorado resident can have and saves it for your own family and community.”