Open space preservation relies heavily on the generosity of landowners. Land trusts rarely acquire properties outright at full market value. Appraisals for land are often out of reach for nonprofits and, on the open market, competition with developers can drive the price far above the appraised rate. Skilled negotiators typically sit down with a landowner and go over options which include outright donation of the land to the nonprofit; donation of a conservation easement, in which the owner relinquishes the development rights; and bargain sale, in which the owner usually sells for 50% to 80% of appraised value. In the last case, the remaining percentage is counted as a donation from the landowner. All of these techniques carry a tax advantage for the owners which, in addition to satisfying their desire to preserve their land in perpetuity, provides a valuable incentive. They also allow land trusts to stretch the limited amount of money they have available for acquisitions.
These preservation tools are now in jeopardy. The Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation has proposed a drastic cutback in tax benefits for conservation donations. In a report released in late January, they proposed major decreases in the federal tax deductions for conservation easements and bargain sales. Deductions for conservation easements would be limited to 33% of appraised value and no deduction would be allowed for the donation of an easement on land used for a personal residence. The Land Trust Alliance, a national organization that serves as an umbrella for hundreds of land trusts across the nation, is leading an effort to discredit the Joint Committee's recommendations. Washington Crossing Audubon, though not itself a land trust, supports this effort. Open space preservation, especially in our densely developed state, is key to protecting habitat for all sorts of animals and plants. In our own chapter area, our local land trusts have protected many key habitat blocks by using the very tools that are now threatened. We are deeply concerned about the impact that removal of the tax incentive could have on their continuing efforts. LTA acknowledges that there needs to be a way to prevent abuses of deductions for conservation donations, but the Joint Committee's proposal is Draconian.
What you can do: Contact your U.S. Senators and member of the House of Representatives and urge them to reject the proposal of the Joint Committee on Taxation. Tell them how important open space preservation and habitat conservation are here in New Jersey and throughout the nation. Point out that tax incentives have helped to protect thousands of acres here in our own part of the state and, without these incentives, the work of dedicated land conservancies would collapse. Tell them that the Land Trust Alliance is eager to work with Congress to formulate ways to prevent abuses that would not undermine preservation efforts. For more information, visit the Land Trust Alliance website, http://www.lta.org. Go to http://www.congress.org and enter your ZIP code to get all the Congressional contact information you need. Consider writing a letter to the editor of your daily newspaper.
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