by James A. Bacon
The state of Virginia spends $100 million a year in the form of tax expenditures to place conservation easements on land parcels around the state. Could the state get more for its investment? Amy Murphy, an environmental studies major at the University of Richmond, thinks so. In a paper presented to the Climate Change and Resiliency Update Commission Tuesday, she recommended three changes t0 make the law more effective, including a restructuring of the tax credit to favor easements that offered greater environmental benefits.
Murphy’s paper on conservation easement reform was one of 11 prepared under the tutelage of biology professor Peter D. Smallwood and journalism professor Stephen D. Nash that were packaged for consideration by the climate change commission. Each paper focused on a practical, small-bore proposal for helping Virginia ecosystems adapt to warming temperatures. While climate change was the unifying theme, it struck me that many of the proposals make sense whether you believe in catastrophic global warming or not.
Murphy’s paper, in particular, addressed concerns that I have long harbored about Virginia’s conservation easement program. On the plus side, the program provides a way to protect Virginia lands from development that is far cheaper than purchasing the land outright. Landowners receive a tax credit worth 40% of the fair market of the value of the land, with deductions up to $100,000 for the year of donation and 10 subsequent years. In effect, taxpayers pay 40 cents on the dollar to protect land from development beyond its current use, typically agriculture or forestry. Not a bad deal.
The problem is that not all land is equally worth conserving. Some lands harbor endangered species and biological diversity; others don’t. Some easements abut other easements, creating larger bodies of protected habitat; others are tiny islands, creating fragments of little ecological value. The state caps the easement credits at $100 million per year but has no system for prioritizing one easement over another.
Murphy proposes creating a statewide plan, to be administered by the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, to rank and prioritize land based on conservation value. Factors to be considered would include biodiversity, land resilience, land cover, proximity to existing lands and threat of development. Parcels would be scored. Parcels with high scores (of greater conservation value) would receive higher tax credits, while lower-scoring parcels would receive lower credits.
“Ideally, implementing these changes will result in obtaining easements on more land of high ecological importance without altering the total amount of tax credits given annually,” she writes.
A second tweak to the program would address problems created by freezing an easement in judicial stone. Static easements that prescribe specific responsibilities and expectations of future land owners can become outdated over the decades, limiting adaptation to changes in scientific knowledge and climate conditions. Murphy recommends that Virginia require the inclusion of “adaptive management plans” in easement terms. “These plans should require that the landowner manages the land in a manner consistent with preserving the conservation purpose of the easement rather than require specific management techniques.”
Finally, Murphy recommends setting up a system for monitoring easements to ensure that the terms are being adhered to. In Maine, which requires monitoring, 90% of the easements were in compliance — which implies that 10% were not. There is a cost to monitoring, she acknowledges, but the burden “may have a positive influence as [it] may force landowners to limit their holdings so they can provide proper stewardship to them. This may cause a selective pressure away from low value easements.”
Bacon’s bottom line: Virginia’s conservation easement program is a valuable tool for protecting the natural environment. It’s also a great tax break for landowners, some of whom may be motivated to participate for less-than-altruistic motives. Murphy’s recommendations would ensure that this significant state investment yields maximum benefits.