A tax window for conservation restrictions exists now
The Conservation Restriction (CR) is one of the most versatile tools available to landowners wishing to permanently preserve their land. Tax code changes signed into law in August make it an even more appealing option for those who complete their gift by Dec. 31, 2007.
A conservation restriction is a landowner's voluntary agreement to restrict development of private land. Donating a CR generates a federal income tax deduction. The new rules make it easier for a landowner to take full advantage of that deduction. For CRs donated in 2006 and 2007, the taxpayer may now deduct the value of the gift up to 50 percent of adjusted gross income (AGI) per year for up to 15 years. For qualifying farmers, the gift is deductible up to 100 percent AGI. This is a change from the old rule, which allowed a deduction up to 30 percent of AGI, with just a five-year carryover period. Under the old rule, many Vineyard donors with average annual incomes were not able to use up the deduction within the time allotted.
The CR is a contract between a property owner and a conservation organization, town, or government agency that is designed to protect the important natural attributes of the land by tailoring what kinds of uses or development, if any, will be allowed to take place in the future. The conservation entity agrees to make sure that the provisions of the CR are not violated. The CR document is approved by the selectmen of the town and the state Secretary of Environmental Affairs and is then recorded in the Registry of Deeds. Its protection lasts forever. Current and future landowners continue to own and enjoy the private property subject to the provisions of the CR.
Over the last 30 years, just over 5,000 acres of privately owned land on Martha's Vineyard have been protected using CRs, representing almost a quarter of the inventory of conservation land on the Island. Today, the need to protect watershed buffers, prime farm soils, scenic lands, and remaining unbroken natural habitat is greater than ever before.
According to Martha's Vineyard Commission data, 78 parcels between 20 and 100 acres remain undeveloped and unprotected on the Vineyard. Six parcels of 100 acres or more remain that are undeveloped and unprotected. By any reckoning, a large percentage of this land should be permanently dedicated as open space for the benefit of present and future generations. We also know that the combined acquisition efforts of private and public conservation entities alone cannot satisfy the Island's open space need. The personal commitment of private landowners to forgo development is also needed to save the essential beauty and natural attributes of the Vineyard.
The new law sunsets at the end of December 2007. The CR drafting process and approvals by town and state frequently take nine months or more. So there exists a remarkable window of opportunity here, with the prospect of significant benefits for the Island and for those landowners who take advantage of it - but now is the time to act. The Island's conservation organizations stand ready to assist you.
Brendan O'Neill is the executive director of the Vineyard Conservation Society.