New land preservation law welcome
Legislation backed by state Rep. Steve Kulik of Worthington could help us preserve the rural character of the hilltowns by providing landowners with a new incentive to put their acreage beyond the reach of developers.
The House Revenue Committee recently approved the Massachusetts Conservation Incentives Act, which will provide a tax credit for those who donate their land to the state, city or town or a non-profit conservation organization.
Development hasn’t overwhelmed the hilltowns so far, but statewide it’s consuming 40 acres of open land per day. Eventually, developers are going to be looking for greener pastures as they run out of affordable space elsewhere, and we need to be ready for them.
Quite a lot has already been done to limit development. Many local communities have open space and master plans that control it, and some local landowners have sold development rights (also known as conservation restrictions) to the state, their towns or to conservation organizations.
Back about 10 years ago, Russell Biomass developer Bill Hull purchased some 8,000 acres of local forestland and sold conservation restrictions on a large portion to the state. More recently the Appalachian Mountain Club came up with an innovative plan to protect land it currently owns in Russell from development by future owners– while obtaining the capital it needed to make improvements on a camp it operates there. Club officials proposed that the town apply for grant funding to purchase the development rights, which it did. The club got the money it needed for the renovations, but more importantly, the town protected a pristine wilderness from development in perpetuity.
Under the proposed legislation, a landowner who donates acreage will be eligible for a tax credit of up to $50,000. The credit isn’t refundable– that is, it can’t exceed the tax owed for a given year. It can be stretched over a 10-year period, however, reducing or eliminating a donor’s state income tax liability until the full amount of the credit is used up.
Although the act could impact the local property tax revenues generated by the land before it was donated, it will probably prove either neutral or positive when the potential cost of development is factored in. As we’ve pointed out many times, residential property usually generates negative cash flow because the cost of providing municipal services, particularly education, exceeds the amount of the average residential tax bill. In any case, agricultural and forestland are often taxed under a special classification, Chapter 61, which allows the owners to pay a lower rate, thereby generating less revenue for the town. It should be noted too that land donated to the state could benefit a town through the PILOT program– payments in lieu of taxes that the state sends to municipalities with state-owned land within their borders.
While some people might argue that development hasn’t been a serious problem in the region and that we already have enough protections, preserving the hilltown heritage is so important that we need all the help we can get. And this new legislation, if it becomes law, will provide us with an additional tool empowering us to keep our hills, fields and valleys the way most of us like them.
This article was originally published in the March 13, 2008 edition of Country Journal, © Turley Publications, Inc., reprinted with permission.