Nature Noted

Notes on a changing Nature

Location: Bellville, Texas, United States

I never would have predicted this one

Sunday, January 30, 2005

The "They'd do it anyway" argument

A big part of the argument of the Joint Congressional report revolves around tax breaks given to owners of historic homes for maintaining the house facades. In fact, conservation easements aren't discussed nearly as much as facades. The report contends that the owners of these historic homes shouldn't be rewarded for buying houses that they would probably buy anyway. Then that logic is then transferred to donors of conservation easements.... saying in essence they'd make the donations whether they got a tax break anyway, so why give them a break?
Have established that I'm not a tax attorney, I'd like to rely on the rebuttal for that argument to come from someone who IS a tax attorney. Nancy A. McLaughlin is an associate professor of law at the University of Utah. She has published what is probably the most recent scholarly study of the impact of tax incentives on conservation easements. You can find it on her law school bio page. The report was published in "Ecology Law Quarterly" and titled "Increasing the Tax Incentives for Conservation Easement Donations - A Responsible Approach". I'm halfway through it so far, and found this rebuttal to the committee's facade argument.
"“the Treasury has argued that a landowner who has no desire to sell or develop his land gives up little or nothing by donating an easement. However that argument ignores both the economic and practical realities of an easement donation..... the market and transaction costs associated with an easement donation typically will be quite high. In addition, the significant reduction in the value of land that results from an easement donation is not reversible should the landowner have a change in fortunes, will have an adverse impact on the landowner’s ability to borrow against the value of the land, and will reduce either the proceeds the landowner will receive on a subsequent sale of the land or the value of the assets the landowner is able to transfer at death. Moreover, every easement donation involves a permanent loss of some autonomy with respect to the use and management of the encumbered land.”
I think there's no doubt that most people who donate conservation easements are motivated by their love of the land, and their wish to preserve its character. But it comes at a cost, and unless there's some tax benefit, many important parcels that would otherwise be donated will probably end up being developed.
NOTE: Thanks to all who have dropped me the kind notes about the coverage here. Keep your tips coming!


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