End of uncertainty for tax incentives heralded as major boost for land conservation

By:  Judy Benson
The Day

Old Saybrook — Land conservation efforts received a big end-of-the-year boost with Congress’ passage of the spending and tax deal that will help ensure more open space is preserved in Connecticut, Sen. Chris Murphy and Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, said Tuesday.

Murphy and Courtney joined state and local leaders in a news conference at town hall highlighting the recent conservation initiatives included in the bill approved by both houses of Congress and signed into law by President Obama on Dec. 18.

In addition to funding the government and preventing a shutdown, the $1.1 trillion spending bill includes three programs supporting land conservation and an extension of tax credits for wind and solar energy projects.

“This was a pretty amazing set of wins for the issue of land conservation here in Connecticut and all across the country,” Murphy said. “I have never seen the stars align the way they did at the end of this year, and as a result, millions of acres of land will be preserved that would not have been.”

The bill made permanent the conservation easement tax incentive, which allows property owners who donate easements on their land to a land trust or other nonprofit conservation group, state or town to deduct a percentage of the value of the easement from their income taxes.

Before the bill was approved, he said, would-be donors did not have the assurance that the tax break would be permanent.

“It’s been on the books for 15 years, but extended one year at a time, sometimes retroactively,” he said. "It has made the difference" between owners being willing and able to donate or not, he added.

The easement tax credits are particularly helpful to farmers who are willing to forgo development rights on a parcel in exchange for a lower tax bill, he said.

Mike Urban, president of the Old Saybrook Land Trust, said the easement tax credit has been an important tool for his organization. The trust was able to obtain easements to the Great Cedars east and west preserves, for example, in part because of the tax incentives available to the previous owners. After the trust held the easements for several years, the properties were acquired by the town.

“This is very good news for us,” he said of the easement tax credits becoming permanent.

The bill also increased the federal Land & Water Conservation Fund to $450 million in 2016, a $150 million increase from the current fiscal year. As a result, Connecticut will receive more federal dollars that can be leveraged with state and local funds to preserve more open space, Murphy said.

Another $10 million in federal funds was added to the Highlands Conservation Act, which is reserved for open space purchases in Appalachian Mountain region of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut.
“Connecticut will get some significant new funding for conservation along the Appalachian corridor,” the senator said.

Courtney emphasized the money for the two conservation funds is not coming from tax revenues but from royalties paid by private companies for oil and gas drilling on federal lands.

The Land & Water Conservation Fund, Courtney said, has made federal matching funds available for open space purchases since 1964, but it expired in September 2014. The fund has now been extended for three more years. One of the projects it helped fund, he noted, was the purchase of the 1,000-acre Preserve property in Old Saybrook, Westbrook and Essex.

"Connecticut has received $8 million from the fund since 2011,” he said.

Also celebrating the environmental initiatives in the spending bill were state Sen. Art Linares, R-Westbrook, state Rep. Devin Carney, R-Old Saybrook, and Old Saybrook First Selectman Carl Fortuna.

“It’s fantastic to see Washington get things done,” Fortuna said.