Land Matters: Conservation Myths

July 5, 2017Rebecca


Last week I was speaking with someone about one of our current projects, and several questions came up that I have heard many times before.  They revolve around the impact of conservation projects on the community, and reflect a concern that conservation activities deprive local government of tax revenue and shift the burden of paying for public services to others.  I have addressed these issues before, but some things bear repeating every now and then.  So let me once again address a couple of myths and misconceptions in fairly wide circulation suggesting that conservation imposes a drain on the public treasury.

Perhaps the most common myth is that land subject to a conservation easement is tax exempt; that a landowner, by choosing to protect the conservation values of his or her land (people often loosely refer to this as “putting their land into the conservancy”), is taking that land off the tax rolls.

It’s not true.

People who create a conservation easement give up most of the rights they have to develop the property, to build it out, and some rights to use the property in certain ways.  But they retain ownership of the land. They can occupy it, lease it, sell it, mortgage it and use it for anything except activities that are prohibited by the easement terms. It is private property. As such it is subject to the State’s property tax provisions.

In some circumstances, depending on specific facts, the property owner might have an argument that the assessment should be reduced because of the easement. The law on this subject is complex. As a practical matter, however, local tax assessors in New York enjoy a great deal of independence. We are not aware of any Columbia County assessor who makes it a practice to lower assessed values because an easement has been created. On the contrary, it is our sense that a majority of owners of our easement properties pay the same taxes they’d be paying if the land were not conserved. Moreover, it’s my understanding that that is the proper result under applicable law.

Another thing we often hear is that CLC owns a lot of property and doesn’t pay taxes on it. In many cases, this reflects the misapprehension that CLC actually owns the 26,000+ acres of private property on which we hold conservation easements. As discussed above we don’t, and the owners of that land are paying their property taxes.

CLC does, however, own some four thousand acres in a number of parcels that we hold for public access and enjoyment and/or for wildlife habitat and resource conservation.  Our nine Public Conservation Areas (PCAs) are open free of charge, dawn to dusk, 365 days a year to everyone for hiking, bird watching, fishing, snowshoeing or any other form of passive recreation, and they are well used. An important part of our mission is to encourage people to learn about the natural world, to come to appreciate its beauty and its mystery and to understand the profound importance to all human life of maintaining it in a healthy condition. Our PCAs are central to this work, and they provide places for people to experience the outdoors in a variety of Columbia County natural settings.

As a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit corporation, CLC is exempt from paying property taxes. And though it is true, as explained below, that CLC chooses to pay a significant portion of the property taxes from which we are legally exempt, a major point to be made is that the State Legislature long ago decided for any number of public policy reasons that organizations like ours, along with a vast number of other types of public charities, should be exempt. I would note in this regard that the amount of land we own is a tiny fraction of the land owned by municipalities, churches, schools, civic and fraternal organizations and so forth that collectively comprise the tax-exempt roles.

Notwithstanding our exempt status, it is our practice at CLC to make payments-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOT payments) on our PCA properties to the Towns in which they are located. No Town or Village is being deprived of its tax revenue by virtue of our ownership of these properties. We also contribute to the local fire and rescue squads. Although we do not pay county and school taxes, we spend a good deal more than those taxes would be in maintaining our PCA’s, which as a practical matter serve as a county park system, and providing educational programs and opportunities for people of all ages.

People sometimes have a much broader idea in mind when they complain that conservation is a drag on the local economy.  Part of it, to be sure, has to do with the erroneous perception of taking land off the tax rolls.  But beyond that, there is a perception in some quarters that conservation comes with a large opportunity cost. The concern is that conserved land will never be developed to its full potential, and the community will be deprived of the tax revenues and other economic stimuli that are assumed to follow.

Study after study has shown, however, that the cost of residential and commercial development in increased municipal services commonly exceeds the income generated from increased property taxes.  In one study, for example, it was estimated that for every dollar of tax revenue generated by a residential development the municipality paid out something like $1.30 in extra expenses (e.g., police, fire, sewer and water).  By contrast, for every dollar of revenue generated from a working farm, the municipality paid out $.37.  A similar ratio would be expected if, instead of a working farm, the comparison was made with large properties with little or no development on them.

The argument that conservation cuts into public revenues also overlooks the fact that conserved land and publicly accessible open space add significantly to a community’s quality of life and increase its attractiveness to others as a place to live, work, visit or establish a business. This phenomenon is real. A major employer that relocated to Saratoga several years ago was motivated to do so in significant part because of the area’s exceptional public trail system and highly attractive open spaces.

We are proud of our work at the Columbia Land Conservancy, not only because we believe in the importance of conservation to the land and the environment, but also because we believe that successful conservation here will contribute directly and substantially to the strength of our local economy and the health of our communities. I would argue that Columbia County’s single most significant natural asset is the truly exceptional conservation resources – excellent farmland, huge forest tracts, extensive wildlife habitat and water bodies and extraordinarily scenic open spaces. Our best bet for a bright economic future will be to nurture a collective commitment to take good care of these valuable but fragile assets.

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