Nature Noted

Notes on a changing Nature

Location: Bellville, Texas, United States

I never would have predicted this one

Friday, January 28, 2005

Death of Easements Part 2.

I'm not a tax attorney, so factor that into my reading of the Committee's recommendations to scale back easements. As I read it, the report says, if someone still lives on the land, it shouldn't be eligible for easements, period. And if the easement doesn't address a specific government conservation program., it's not allowed either. And even if it did meet the criteria of satisfying a specific government conservation program, it can only get a tax break equal to 1/3 of the valuation. So if this goes through, the owner of an ecologically fragile chunk of land that would advance the aims of a specific government program now has 2/3's less incentive to donate the easement. Do you think those timber companies that have donated easements in Northern Michigan and the Adirondacks of New York would be as interested if this standard were in effect? And if you have a vacation house on that land, it doesn't matter how important the land is. As long as you're going to live there, you might as well keep the development rights and see what happens.
The whole bit about golf courses and subdivisions getting the breaks smacks of the whole welfare queen driving a cadillac argument. Does it happen? Yes. And the LTA is right to be scrambling to get its tougher code adopted by all trusts. There have been abuses, that is well documented. And I understand the common sense in the argument that the way the law reads now, it's way too easy for land owners and trusts to reach a wink, wink, nod, nod understanding. The goal of keeping the taxpayers from looking like "chumps" as Senator Baucus calls it is laudable. But if this measure goes through, there will no longer be a business reason to sell conservation easements. Keeping fragile land from being developed will simply depend upon the kindness of strangers.
In my short time writing about trusts, I've been concerned about the ubiquity of easements. As a layman, it looked to me that too many trusts used easements too freely. I worried that the abuses were going to come back and bite the trusts. Now it looks like it may kill them. Do we really want land trusts to die?


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