Conservation Easements Crucial to Land Preservation
By Congressman Joe Pitts and Sherri Evans-Stanton
Chester County has long been known for its beautiful landscapes. The beauty of our open space has attracted visitors and new residents alike for years. Ironically, the appeal of our landscapes creates a demand for development and housing that threatens that very quality of life.
As land prices rise and demand for homes increases, more and more open space is being developed, disappearing as the pressure for new development grows. Land conservation enables a community like Chester County to preserve its beauty, maintain clean air and clean water, and promote the public health of our community at large.
Many landowners facing sprawling development also face an increasing tax burden due to rising land values and costs for community services, yet these same open space properties help to create our unique way of life here in Chester County.
Open space preservation and land conservation continue to be a top priority for the people of Chester County. And it has been our priority as well. Our combined efforts have educated the public here in Chester County about options for preserving land as well as lawmakers in Washington D.C. about the importance of continued tax incentives for land preservation.
One of the most powerful tools available to local communities in the effort to preserve valuable land is the tax treatment for the donation and sale of easements. Conservation easements allow private landowners to retain ownership, control, and management of their property, while ensuring that important resources on those lands will be conserved for the future.
They are a vital tool in the fight to preserve community lands with significant natural, agricultural, and historic features while still achieving the social and economic goals of the community. A conservation easement is an interest in land that restricts the owner's use of property in specific ways. For example, some land owners who sell conservation easements for their property choose to give up the right to build on the land.
Easements are more than a mere agreement between two parties. They are described as "running with the land," meaning they attach to the property, not to the people agreeing to them. They ensure the land will be preserved in perpetuity, save our best farmland, protect wildlife habitat, and safeguard critical ground and surface waters from pollution and flooding.
Since 1969, the IRS has permitted a charitable tax deduction for the donation of qualified conservation easements. This tax treatment has made it attractive for many individuals to donate the easement rights to their land and enjoy a substantial tax benefit. These tax credits are an incentive for people to permanently preserve their land now and for future generations.
The Brandywine Conservancy has made substantial use of this provision in promoting land conservation in Chester County. Congress recently approved an extension of this vital tax provision through the end of 2009, and retroactive to January 1, 2008, restoring these benefits after their expiration at the end of last year.
We both supported this extension, including the spearheading of a successful effort in Congress to include an extension of the tax treatments in the recently enacted Farm Bill. This will extend the tax exemption for an additional two years, and is critical to the continued success of conservation groups like the Brandywine Conservancy in their effort to preserve essential open space.
This tax incentive provides leverage that has often doubled the effectiveness of local, state and federal conservation programs by rewarding landowners who donate part of the value of their land. We will continue working to see this tax incentive made permanent.
We both love Chester County, and know how important it is to the people here that we preserve our unique ways of life. This will require the continued acknowledgment of lawmakers that conservation easements require beneficial tax treatment as well as the continued educational efforts of conservation groups like the Brandywine Conservancy. We all want to see Chester County remain the beautiful place we have all come to love. It is our sincere hope that, with the combined efforts of lawmakers and conservation groups, we can make this vision a reality.