Plan in Congress Called Harmful to Conservation; Lawmakers Are Considering Cutting Tax Breaks for Land Trust Donations

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Byline: TERRY DICKSON

BRUNSWICK -- Proposed cuts in tax breaks for conservation easements endanger programs that have protected green space from Georgia's coastal islands to the hills in the west and mountains in the north, environmentalists said.

With the use of easements, property owners have donated their development rights to land trusts, which ensure the lands are maintained as farms, forests or natural areas. In exchange, the easement donors get to live on their land while enjoying tax breaks from the IRS.

The Joint Congressional Committee on Taxation is considering a proposal that would cut those tax breaks by 66 percent, a move that many, including Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, say would seriously harm conservation efforts in the state.

Perdue said as much in a letter to Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, vice chairman of the committee.

Since the tax exemptions were put in place in 1986, conservation groups in Georgia have used them to protect more than 96,000 acres in the state, Perdue wrote. At the time of the revisions to federal tax laws, there were no land trusts, but by 1994 there were 14 and 32 by 2004, a year when nearly 36,000 acres were preserved, he said.

"The loss of vitally important federal tax relief as part of the equation could all but eliminate conservation gains of this type in the future," Perdue wrote.

At least one of the conservation efforts crosses the Georgia-Florida border. The Red Hills Conservation Program protects 60,000 acres from Thomasville to Tallahassee, said executive director Kevin McGorty. The 55 properties include mostly hunting plantations and small farms, but the Red Hills program also includes strips of forests along the Aucilla and Ochlockonee rivers to protect the watersheds, he said.

The owners of the land would have never agreed to the easements had it not been for the tax breaks, McGorty said.

"If that happens," he said of the potential loss of the exemptions, "no one in their right minds would do conservation easements."

The Georgia Land Trust has also secured easements across state lines, including 4,500 acres in Alabama that protect the Chattahoochee River from development, said Frank McIntosh, a conservation planner for the organization.

That parcel is the largest of the Georgia Land Trust's 19,000 acres under easement. The organization also has a conservation easement on an acre on Tybee Island, which is likely worth about $1 million by now, he said.

One sizable easement is on 300 acres of rice fields in Camden County being restored to wetlands, including the replanting of cypress trees, McIntosh said.

ST. SIMONS ISLAND

Time is running out in many areas, such as Effingham County, where farmland is being rapidly converted to subdivisions with half-acre lots and septic tanks that are dubbed "house farms," McIntosh said. …