Do you own a bucolic piece of land that you hope will remain bucolic long after you’ve passed? Do you wish that you could get a tax break on the parts of that property that you have no intention of ever developing anyway? Are developers tempting you to part with that land, waving financial offers in your face that seem too good to resist?
If the answer to any of these questions is Yes, you might be a prime candidate for negotiating a conservation easement or Purchase of Development Rights (PDR). Such an arrangement with a local land trust can ease a property-owner’s tax burden in perpetuity, or even provide immediate cash, while sparing a fine rural landscape from being ruined by the construction of dozens of condominiums. If the acreage in question is adjacent to land that has already been protected from development, or has important conservation values such as wildlife habitat, stream frontage or superior soils, you may find that it’s of particular interest to groups whose mission is to preserve open space.
Among such groups, in southern Ulster County, are the Wallkill Valley Land Trust (WVLT) and the Town of Gardiner’s Open Space Commission (OSC). WVLT has been busy for years setting up easements in many communities along the Wallkill River, not to mention establishing the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail. In the past year, the recently revived OSC has embarked on a campaign to identify and preserve valuable open space within the township’s borders; the Gardiner Town Board gave its blessing to this new Open Space Acquisition Program in March.
The groundwork for that new program has already been laid, in the form of a Natural Resources Inventory (NRI) and set of maps that identify and describe nature’s bounties that are most obviously worth preserving long-term in this town that lies at the feet of the spectacular Shawangunk Ridge. These community assets are sorted into categories that include Biological Diversity and Ecological Resources, Water Resources, Agriculture and Working Farms, Scenic and Cultural Resources, Recreational and Public Access and Climate Resilience.
The next step in the land preservation campaign is an outreach and public education phase, meant to entice potential land donors and enlighten residents who might’ve thought about establishing an easement, but felt daunted by the legal technicalities. A live webinar titled “Conservation Easements and Gardiner’s New Open Space Acquisition Program,” hosted by the OSC, was presented on Monday, June 21, and should soon be accessible in recorded format on the town website at www.townofgardiner.org/open-space-commission. Links to the Gardiner NRI and associated maps, as well as draft templates for legal agreements to create your own conservation or agricultual easement, are also accessible on that page.
The information shared in this webinar is a basic introduction that should be useful to anyone who has been thinking about doing an easement on their land, regardless of whether or not they live in the Town of Gardiner. WVLT director Christie DeBoer explained how her organization approaches conservation easements, of which it has established 12 in the Town of Gardiner alone over the years, and gave an overview of the costs as well as the benefits to a landowner in creating one.
A series of slides that can be viewed in DeBoer’s PowerPoint presentation lays out the critical numbers of what an easement donor can expect in tax savings: 25 percent credits on local property taxes, up to a maximum of $5,000 per year, based on the value of the land, as well as a federal tax deductible of as much as 30 to 50 percent of adjusted gross income. These savings attach to the land in perpetuity. Assessed value of the parcel is not automatically reduced by easement restrictions (although you can try arguing with your town’s assessor about it). Surprisingly, according to DeBoer, about three-quarters of the easement donors with whom WVLT has worked don’t even bother to take the tax deductions; they simply want to see their land permanently preserved.
Others, especially lifelong farmers nearing retirement age who don’t have heirs who want to take over the family business, may need a quick infusion of money to resist the urge to sell off part or all of their land with no restrictions. Housing developers love farmland, because it’s typically flat, cleared of trees and rocks and landscaped to optimize drainage. Half their prep work is already done for them. However, besides their intrinsic value to our food web, undeveloped farm fields are often crucial to the preservation of rural viewscapes and wildlife corridors. Large farms are frequently targeted for preservation by land trusts, which are highly motivated to work out financial arrangements that will enable a hard-beset family farm to stay in active operation.
If future tax exemptions and deductions won’t solve a farmer’s short-term problems, Purchase of Development Rights might. In such an arrangement, a land trust with deep-pocketed partners will literally buy control over what kinds of development can be done on specific portions of a farm property. Whether it’s an easement or a PDR being negotiated, there’s wiggle room in the template that will enable the landowner to designate other parts of the property for future construction, such as a home for an offspring or a land manager, or other uses that will yield income, such as a tree farm. The land trust will have control over what can be done with the acreage under easement, with specified limitations on such activities as mining, tree removal or changes to riparian buffer areas.
There are also costs to the landowner involved in creating an easement, averaging $12,000 to $25,000, DeBoer pointed out: baseline documentation, title search and insurance, legal and filing fees in the short term, as well as monitoring the easement and ensuring compliance over the long haul. “We are required to enforce these easements, and we take that very seriously,” she said. In some cases where permanent preservation of a property is regarded as especially critical, larger conservation partners such as the Open Space Institute or Scenic Hudson may get involved in helping to defray such expenses. WVLT requires a minimum contribution of $7,000 toward its Stewardship and Conservation Defense Fund from each easement donor to offset costs to the organization. Part of a land trust’s job is to help you do the math as to whether the benefits outweigh the costs.
WVLT isn’t the only possible partner in making an easement happen, of course. If you’re a Gardiner resident and interested in exploring whether your property is a likely candidate, the OSC wants to hear from you. It has drafted application forms for both conservation and agricultural easements, with slightly different criteria, on which you can make your case for why your land needs preserving. Step One is to review the NRI descriptions and maps pertinent to your location and consider how the parcel meets the preservation criteria. To learn more, and stay posted on the progress of the Open Space Acquisition Program and how you can participate, visit www.townofgardiner.org/open-space-commission.