February 27, 2007

Keeping the Balance and Saving Some Green: Land Owners Receive Big Tax Breaks for Protecting Property

The earth’s surface area is 196,949,970 square miles of which about three-fourths is water (about 148,000,000) which only leaves about 48,000,000 square miles of land mass. Such large numbers can be deceiving, but what is important to take away here is the fact that there is limited land with a growing demand. As represented by the picture to the right rows of identical cookie-cutter housing developments are popping up everywhere along the California coast. In the United States large pieces of land are being developed. Specifically in the west, rural parts of California, Washington, Oregon, Arizona, Idaho, Nevada, and Colorado have become highly desirable pieces of real estate. At the same time, the amount of people moving to these regions has greatly increased. For instance, the U.S. Census Bureau, Colorado's population increased nearly 50% from 1999-2000 alone while the entire United State's population grew 13% in comparison. The overall population has increased because of similar situations to that of Colorado. Many western states face the same dilemma of rapid growth. And so begins the struggle: save the land, protect the greenery, or make some green and subdivide.

In an attempt to counteract the allure of high profits from subdividing and selling pieces of beautiful terrain, a recent trend in conservation practices has led to major tax incentives. According to an article in The Economist from February 3rd, 2007, “Conservation in Colorado: Mountains for the Centuries,” “several rural conservation organizations work collectively and in accord with state legislatures to create income-tax credit in exchange for a conservation easement on their property.” This easement maintains the private ownership of the property while permanently prohibiting certain types of development such as the subdivision of land. Some incentives offer an income-tax credit of 50% of the fair market value of the easement up to a whopping maximum of $375,000. If that does not already appeal to the property owner then there are many other options as the credits are abnormally flexible. The article goes on to explain that the income-tax credits sometimes may “have limited appeal for the Colorado ranchers and farmers who have little income for the state to tax.” If that is the case they are able to sell the income-tax break for 85 cents on the dollar, with all of this made possible by the Colorado Coalition of Land Trusts.

Property owners must love these tax breaks because the program seems to be working. Research by the Land Trust Alliance, has concluded that the total acreage protected in the west to have increased by 44% (shown by the pie chart above to the left). More specifically, Colorado's percentage of protected land went from just under 350,000 acres in 2000 to almost one million by the end of 2005. However, issues have arisen concerning the tracking of the conserved land and more importantly the large tax revenue decrease. But with few critics this is quite successful at accomplishing a balance between profit and politics in a world where global warming has become quite a concern. By giving the people of Colorado an opportunity to profit from conservation these organizations have created a win-win situation. With the recent boom in housing across the country it is now important that regulations like these are put in place to preserve the scenery that originally attracted people to this beautiful area (like that of the countryside pictured above to the right).

Protected property will keep Colorado and its surrounding states (at least for now) from losing that allure of beauty and tranquility. According to the U.S. Census Bureau predictions of growth the United States will have an overall increase in population of about 49% from 2000-2050. As the increasing conservation of land leads to less real estate, it will contribute to rising property value. As this continues the supply for such unique properties decreases and the demand increases. If such drastic tax-incentives are adopted elsewhere in the country we could see quite a change in the way developers and private property owners alike look at sprawling acreage.