Conservation easements can benefit taxpayers

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David G. Yolton is a land trust board member.

In the New River Valley, we face a huge challenge:  How do we preserve the bounty of nature and our rich natural resources, the envy of many on this planet?
The New River Land Trust is a non-profit organization committed to conserving farmland, forests, open spaces, and historic places in Virginia’s New River region, including the counties of Bland, Carroll, Giles, Floyd, Grayson, Montgomery, Pulaski, Wythe, and the cities of Galax and Radford.
We preserve precious land by educating landowners and others about the benefits of voluntarily donated conservation easements, and by helping those donors make the most of the state and federal government’s land conservation tax incentives.
An easement typically is defined as a right, such as a right of way, given or sold to another to make limited use of one’s real property. An easement only confers the right of use, not ownership.
Common easements are utility easements, drainage easements, and slope easements. A conservation easement gives the right to perpetuate existing conservation values on one’s property to another, usually to a federal or state affiliated agency capable of monitoring and maintaining values.
The most common way to perpetuate conservation values is to limit development on the property. The agency holding the easement doesn’t necessarily pay for it, the payment comes from tax incentives provided by state and federal governments.
Since 2002, the land trust has worked with 188 landowners to protect more than 39,000 acres of farms, forests, historic places, and open spaces including almost 21 miles along New River.
This land will forever be maintained as rural land contributing to the landscape, livelihood, and heritage of our region.
State and federal governments, acting for the general welfare, offer significant tax incentives to easement donors to partially offset the loss of land value resulting from the development restrictions associated with conservation easements.
Absent other considerations, an elderly farm couple might be hard-pressed to refuse a developer’s offer of, say a half-million dollars for their beautiful 100 acre farm on New River.
By putting their land under a conservation easement, they would receive a portion of its value in tax credits from the state and a 50 percent to 100 percent federal income tax deduction.
After placing the easement on the property and receiving tax credits, the couple would still own the land. They can continue to live on and farm the property, lease it to others, pass it on to heirs, or they could sell the land to the next generation of farmers.
Thus, the land remains forever open and those prime soils will be available to continue to feed us.
Housing developments and other residential areas actually cost counties more to service than the real estate taxes generated. Open areas generally cost less to service than the taxes generated.
The land trust has an initiative to work with county governments and others to identify and to prioritize the most critical areas for conservation.
Areas would include important water resources, prime agricultural soils, forest resources, wildlife habitat, areas of historic or cultural importance, and scenic views.
We can maximize our efforts to preserve what we value most and to help keep our country strong.
For information about conservation easements and tax credits, contact New River Land Trust at (540) 951-1704 or nrlt@newriverlandtrust.org.