The Untold Story about Conservation Easements

February 11, 2013

Inside Insight

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conservation easements

Editor’s Note: The following column was submitted by Nerve Citizen Reporter Donna Linsin of Oconee County.

In 2002, the S.C. General Assembly agreed there was a need to fund the preservation of wildlife habitats, sites that have unique ecological significance, natural areas, historical sites, farmlands, forest lands, watersheds, open space and urban parks – and to allow public access to these areas. To carry out this mission, the S.C. Conservation Bank was set up.

The source of ongoing funding for the bank derives from a portion of documentary stamp taxes on the the sale and transfer of property in the state. From 2004 to 2012, the bank spent $85 million to conserve about 163,000 acres in our state.

South Carolina has 19 land trusts promoting conservation easements including Upstate Forever, Congaree Land Trust and the Beaufort County Open Land Trust. One only needs to look at the federal income tax returns filed by these entities on the website of the Foundation Center to see their millions of dollars in assets.

The Land Trust Alliance, a national organization, promotes voluntary private- land conservation to benefit communities and natural systems. The alliance has been instrumental in setting aside over 37 million acres of land, about the size of the New England states combined. There are more than 47 million acres conserved by land trusts across the country.

But many of the conservation easements deeds in Oconee County indicate there is limited public access, open only to groups such as the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, YMCA, The Nature Conservancy, The Wilderness Society and Upstate Forever. Even though we are led to believe some conservation easements are to protect the land from future development, some deeds allow the owner to build three single-family homes up to 5,500 square feet each, three ancillary structures up to 1,000 square feet each, and a lodge that can be as large as 8,500 square feet. Many of these tracts can be sub-divided but are limited to a specific number of parcels and acres.

Many of the easements are in perpetuity, which means they are set in stone forever.  Yet emergencies can arise, and sometimes property owners may need to sell their land right away.  How would such limitations and restrictions limit future buyers and the seller?  Scenic, aesthetic and cultural benefits change over time because nature changes along with time. Could some of these easements lose any ecological benefit or even become detrimental?  How would such restrictions affect a future heir of the property, and, if the heir wants to change the conservation easement, would he or she have to get public approval?

Both federal and state governments own hundreds of thousands of acres in South Carolina. These acres have been removed from the property tax rolls, so those of us who own property and pay property taxes will have to make up for this shortfall in property taxes. Placing one’s property in a conservation easement has some very good tax incentives, including state income tax credits and  federal estate-tax exclusion. Whenever tax shelters such as these are used, you and I will have to make up the difference in the shortfall of tax revenues.

Does the General Assembly understand that conservation easements reduce the tax burden on the land owner but place heavier tax burdens on those of us who are not able to claim all the tax incentives? Have these non-governmental land banks told us how much land is enough land to place into conservation easements, and in their minds, will it ever be enough?

It is very questionable whether there is a single source in South Carolina that keeps up with an accumulative inventory of all federally owned lands, state-owned lands, county-owned parks, municipality-owned parks, and public and private conservation easements; and whether the state Conservation Bank takes this into consideration when it chooses which lands to place in conservation easements. For example, almost 30 percent of the land mass in Oconee County is owned by the federal, state, county and municipal governments, plus almost 3,400 acres have already been placed in conservation easements.This does not include lands that are situated on steep slopes that make the land prohibitive to develop.

Except for the tax shelters enjoyed by property owners who have land tied up in a conservation easement, why couldn’t the property owner voluntarily place their property into their own conservation easement without all the government and nonprofit organizations being involved?  This would enable the landowner to make his own choice about his land, not by the choosing and dictates of some nonprofit overseer or government entity.

As more and more land is grabbed by federal, state, county and municipal governments, and land banks, and is placed in conservation easements, the rest of us will have to put up with living in crowded conditions, noisy and intruding neighbors, the unworkable schedules of public transportation, and lack of clean air and water.  Is this how we want to live, work and play? These land-grabbing tactics can only drive up the cost of land that only a few people will be able to afford to buy. Perhaps proponents of conservation easements need to take a look at the National Conservation Easement Database map of the United States before they gobble up any more land to place under their control.

There are many pitfalls in placing property into a conservation easement, and it is up to us to find out as much information as we can because we are not going to hear the negatives from nonprofit organizations, nor from our federal, state, county and city officials.