Annual conservation easement numbers dropped in 2012, but PEC has high hopes for this year

A 160-acre piece of forested land was recently donated to the PEC by the Bowers family, who wanted the property to be used for conservation purposes. Image by PEC A 160-acre piece of forested land was recently donated to the PEC by the Bowers family, who wanted the property to be used for conservation purposes. Image by PEC

Each year, the Piedmont Environmental Council tracks and totals the amount of land put into conservation in the region, and while 2012’s year-end numbers were low, the organization says renewed incentives for easement donation could mean it will see an uptick in the amount of land set aside in the coming year.

According to PEC, 2012 saw the conservation of more than 9,500 previously unprotected acres of land in nine counties: Albemarle, Clarke, Culpeper, Fauquier, Greene, Loudoun, Madison, Orange, and Rappahannock.

In Albemarle alone, 1,546 acres were protected by conservation easements this year, the group said, bringing the county’s total to 87,247 acres—nearly 20 percent of Albemarle County’s land outside the Shenandoah National Park.

PEC Land Conservation Officer Rex Linville, who oversees Albemarle and Greene counties, said those numbers aren’t as high as they were in 2011, when about 2,000 acres in Albemarle County were covered. The council’s most successful year for Albemarle was 2006, he said, when it protected more than 10,000 acres.

Linville said he found himself scrambling to make calls to donors at the last minute in 2012, because landowners didn’t know what the federal tax deductions would look like and held off on easements for most of the year. Lawmakers dragged their feet when deciding on details of federal income tax deductions and incentives for conservation easements, he said, which made potential donors hesitant to make that kind of financial commitment.

“Congress really did nothing until the end of December when it passed the fiscal cliff tax bill,” Linville said.

With the 2012 end-of-year fiscal cliff deal, Congress temporarily boosted incentives for conservation easement donations. Those who donate development rights can now claim more deductions, and can get 40 percent of the value of their gift back in Virginia Land Preservation Tax Credits, which they can either use or sell to others. The market for those credits is booming right now, said Linville.

Private landowners make donations in an entirely voluntary manner, he added, which makes it difficult to predict how the numbers will fluctuate from one year to the next. PEC has seen higher numbers in the past, and Linville said he’s optimistic that 2013 will bring a spike in easements.

“I think the expanded federal income tax deduction in 2013 will act as an additional incentive for landowners to move forward this year,” he said. “The bottom line is that, at least from a tax perspective, 2013 is a great year to consider a conservation easement donation,” he said.

Despite the shakiness of last year, an unexpected windfall still came PEC’s way. One family in Albemarle County went beyond just securing an easement, and donated an entire 160-acre piece of property to the PEC.

The piece of land in the northern part of Albemarle County was originally part of the development plan for Hickory Ridge Farm, Linville said. But the younger generation of the Bowers family in Earlysville, who inherited the property when their father died, wanted to look into conservation uses for the forest-covered land. After discussion with Linville, the family agreed to simply give the property to the PEC—an unusual but appreciated move.

“It’s kind of the best of both worlds,” Linville said. “We get a protected property and the financial benefit of having access to it, and the landowner gets more tax benefits because they gave more away.”

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