Donating Conservation Easements Helps Ensure Preservation

Article excerpt

Nine years ago, Ken Gfroerer traded in a home in Green Tree for the natural wonders of the Laurel Highlands, moving an hour east to a 51-acre farm where he and his wife, Lisa, could ski, hike and maintain a large organic garden.

They wanted to preserve the land as well as live on it. So, they donated what's called a conservation easement.

"If you really have a bond with your land and you really care about it, it's a way to permanently protect it," said Gfroerer, 43, of Stahlstown in Westmoreland County. "Everything's the same. The only thing that's different is you can't develop it. You can't break it into parcels and sell it (but) really, you can continue to use it the same."

The trend of donating conservation easements -- essentially giving away a property's development rights to a group that pledges to preserve the land -- is growing in Pennsylvania, conservationists say. About 10 percent of the 50,000 acres the Nature Conservancy protects in Pennsylvania fall under those types of easements, a tool landowners have used to protect 4 million acres nationwide. The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy has added 30,474 acres to that growing total, many of them in Allegheny and Westmoreland counties.

"The great benefit of conservation easements is that they effectively conserve land in perpetuity, while also keeping property in private hands," said Stephanie Kraynick, a Western Pennsylvania Conservancy spokeswoman. "They provide tax benefits, protect land from subdivision and fragmentation, and still allow the land to contribute to the local economy."

Those tax benefits soon could become the subject of congressional debate. House members have introduced a bill to make permanent tax incentives for those donating conservation easements. The measure, which has been jointly introduced in the Senate, could be debated early next year. …