2017-2018 Legislative Session: Expanding Land Conservation

By: Senator Kathleen O’Connor Ives – Nov, 2016

Leading up to the beginning of a new formal legislative session in January, I’m focusing in on which bills will be priorities for me to file, re-file and co-sponsor. My column over these next months will be focused on a number of those bills.

This month’s column is focused on a bill I co-sponsored last session—House Bill 2585, “An Act Relative To Land Conservation Incentives,” filed by Representative Stephen Kulik, which would expand the state’s Conservation Land Tax Credit Program by increasing the state’s cap from $2 million to $5 million a year.

Massachusetts created the Conservation Land Tax Credit Program in 2011 with the goal of increasing the donation of property by landowners for conservation purposes. Under the program, land donations must be made to governmental entities such as municipalities, or private conservation corporations such as non-profit organizations, that have the resources necessary to provide stewardship of the conserved lands. These properties must contain an important natural resource such as forestland, drinking water assets, and sensitive natural habitats. In exchange for eligible properties, landowners are provided a tax credit valued at 50% of their land’s value. The individual tax credit is capped at a maximum $75,000 per donation, while the state-wide limit for the program overall is limited to $2 million per year.

Since 2011, the program has helped preserve over 10,000 acres of land in Massachusetts. Between 2011 and 2016, the state received land donations valued at over $46.3 million at a cost of $10.7 million in tax credits, representing a significant return on investment. However, there are currently more than 87 applications for land transfers under the program awaiting state approval, representing $5 million in state tax credits, and encompassing 3,500 acres, including over 100 acres of land in the Merrimack Valley.

Increasing the current $2 million annual cap to $5 million would address the existing waitlist of landowners whom have applied under the program, and also encourage greater conservation planning in the future.

As many as 14 states in the region have some kind of land conservation tax credit programs, including New York and Connecticut. Many of these states’ programs also have much larger caps, or no annual caps or other restrictions, to prevent residents from participating in the state’s conservation goals. This allows residents to have more freedom to do what they think is best for the future of their land parcels.

Expansion of the tax credit is a wise investment because preserved open space, rich in natural resources, has many public benefits which cannot be replicated once that land is permanently developed. These benefits include expanded outdoor recreational opportunities for local residents, curbed municipal costs related to suburban sprawl, preservation of rural character in communities, protection of drinking water resources, maintained farmland for food production, and the conservation of wildlife habitat.

Current zoning laws have resulted in more and more outward development beyond urban areas, threatening open spaces. In fact, the U.S. Forest Service recently named the Merrimack River watershed as the most threatened in the nation due to the loss of surrounding forest acreage, which would typically filter polluted runoff from more-populated areas before water reaches the river. Over 600,000 residents in the Merrimack Valley draw their water from the Merrimack, including the City of Methuen. Changing zoning laws at the state and municipal level can be a time-consuming and often lengthy process. However, expansion of this tax credit program is a straightforward and expeditious tool to address conservation goals zoning often strives to address.

Moreover, Massachusetts currently maintains many other types of more expensive tax credit programs, where the benefits are much more speculative and less directly helpful to the public interest. Let’s raise the cap on the state’s Conservation Land Tax Credit Program.
If this is an initiative you too support, your advocacy for this bill to be a state priority will make a real difference in making this proposal a reality.

Senator O’Connor Ives can be reached at KATHLEEN.OCONNORIVES@MASENATE.GOV. More information on her work is available on her Senate Office website: www.oconnorives.com