Tuesday, June 27, 2006

CONSERVATION EASEMENTS: A conservation easement (or conservation restriction) is a legal agreement between a landowner and a land trust or government agency that permanently limits uses of the land in order to protect its conservation values. It allows you to continue to own and use your land and to sell it or pass it on to heirs.

When you donate a conservation easement to a land trust, you give up some of the rights associated with the land. For example, you might give up the right to build additional structures, while retaining the right to grow crops. Future owners also will be bound by the easement's terms. The land trust is responsible for making sure the easement's terms are followed.

Conservation easements offer great flexibility. An easement on property containing rare wildlife habitat might prohibit any development, for example, while one on a farm might allow continued farming and the building of additional agricultural structures. An easement may apply to just a portion of the property, and need not require public access.

A landowner sometimes sells a conservation easement, but usually easements are donated. If the donation benefits the public by permanently protecting important conservation resources and meets other federal tax code requirements it can qualify as a tax-deductible charitable donation. The amount of the donation is the difference between the land's value with the easement and its value without the easement. Placing an easement on your property may or may not result in property tax savings.

Perhaps most important, a conservation easement can be essential for passing land on to the next generation. By removing the land's development potential, the easement lowers its market value, which in turn lowers estate tax. Whether the easement is donated during life or by will, it can make a critical difference in the heirs' ability to keep the land intact.

The Colorado Legislature is once again revising the state income tax credit for conservation easements to correct inconsistencies with federal law, and to remove the temptation to use the credit in ways for which it was not intended. The credit, and the ability to covert it to cash by transfer or refund, have made land protection attractive and affordable for landowners at all income levels. Resident taxpayers and nonresident landowners who are members of Colorado pass through entities may claim the credit. However, the provision of the current law that allows an easement donor to claim a credit of 100% of the first $100,000 in easement value has raised the question of whether some easement donors have "donative intent," (which is necessary to qualify for both the federal income tax deduction and the state tax credit.) The same provision has led some landowners to structure a series of easement gifts in order to take maximum advantage of the credit. This practice, while not illegal, has resulted in smaller conservation easements that are harder for a land trust to justify. House Bill 1354, to take effect in January of 2007, eliminates the "100% of the first $100,000" provision, and also clarifies who may claim the credit. It changes the formula for calculating the credit to a simple 50% of the value of a donated conservation easement, and it raises the credit cap from $260,000 to $375,000.

Source: La Plata Open Space Conservancy - 2005 Annual Report.

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