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Conservation easements – the evil no one knows (cares?) about

I read many conservative/libertarian blogs each week and to date I have never seen a post or comment about one of the most pernicious power grabs by our government(s) that is costing the taxpayers billions of dollars so that wealthy people can get richer at the public’s expense.

I refer to “conservation easements”. For the uninitiated conservation easements are an agreement where-in a landowner sells his rights to future development of his land in return for either cash or tax credits. Its not my intent here to conduct a Conservation Easements 101 class so below are a number of links to relevant sites.

DUFRESNE FOUNDATION
SPECIAL ISSUE

Virginia Land Rights Coalition

Private Landowner Network

CBS Business Network

I’ve included a mix of both left, right, and center so the curious can make up their own mind. The point of this diary is to explain why I believe that conservation easements are bad for our nation and constitute little more than yet another power grab by our governments both federal and state. As is the usual practice when the government takes our rights they also make us pay for the privilege.

In theory conservation easements preserve open space, a seemingly Mom & Apple Pie goal that only a mean person would object to. Obviously only a rude bore would ask when We The People asked government to scurry around preserving “open space” by paying large land owners billions of dollars to “preserve” land that no one has any intention of developing.

Only the most curmudgeonly among us object to publicly owned parks and preserves, but conservation easements takes this urge for “open space” to a new level. Here, the “open space” remains privately owned and used by the owner so long as it fits one of the following purposes: Outdoor recreation, wildlife habitat, scenic enjoyment, agricultural use, or historical importance. So the only “value” the public receives for their money is “open space”. Open space used by a private owner to farm, ride horses or just gaze at the sunset.

You may have noticed as you travel around that there is already quite a lot of open space in our country. Huge swaths of it where Bambi can roam free. Millions of acres of open space that extends beyond the eye’s ability to see. Yet our government is spending BILLIONS of our dollars to “preserve” chunks of it here and there.

Please understand that there is no strategically chosen vital area on a map that the government is trying to preserve. Many horse farms, country estates, and prime farm land have been “preserved” at taxpayer expense when there was not one shred of ability, much less intent, to develop it.

But the really clever people sometimes rezone their property from low density to high density and THEN put it in a conservation easement. Let’s say there is a 200 acre farm located in the outskirts of a small town or city. Depending on the area, that land zoned for agricultural use is worth perhaps 10k an acre. But rezoned to one acre lots it becomes worth 50K per acre. Suddenly the value of that land has quintupled and so too the tax credits to be gained from our beneficent government.

The tax credit is based on the difference between the value before the conservation easement and the value after the conservation easement. If his income bracket is high enough he uses the credits himself. If not, he sell them for 80 cents on the dollar to even richer people who use them to reduce their tax bill (all states don’t allow transfers but Virginia is one that does). On top of all this, Mr Wealthy Guy pays a substantially reduced real property tax on his estate since it is now “open space”. Don’t they arrest gangsters for this type of flim-flam?

Now let’s consider another scenario. Suppose your family owns 1000 acres of farm land that sits 5 miles off the nearest state road and 15 miles from the nearest public water and sewer. Your family has been there for 75 years and has no desire to move or sell off parcels. However, why not put the place into a conservation easement? After all even at say $2500 an acre the place is worth $2.5 million! With the conservation easement the value would drop to perhaps $1m (the appraisals on these deals are more art than science but since this is being pushed by both Democrats and Republicans and is the moral equivalent of motherhood, generally the figures are fudged toward the kindly land-owner as opposed to the greedy taxpayers). When we use $1.5 million of tax credits or sell them at 80 cents on the dollar we wind up with a nice chunk of change and we still own the 1000 acres and can continue to farm it as we always have! What a country!

A key issue to consider is that these are PERMANENT easements. No one can ever ever ever develop this land no matter how much sense it may make in 2025 or 2050. Here in Virginia former Governor Tim Kaine made vastly increasing the amount of land in these easements one of his top goals. Unfortunately current Governor Republican Bob McDonnell is likewise pushing the program full speed ahead. This is truly a bi-partisan raping of American taxpayers. Who says liberals and conservatives can’t work together?

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