Conservation tax credits questioned
Eagle County, CO Colorado
EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado ” Some state lawmakers want to suspend a tax credit program for conservation easements, a move that would save Colorado money but could jeopardize land deals in Eagle County and the state.
The program offers tax credits up to $375,000 to land owners that sell the development rights to their property.
The credits cost the state about $40 million in 2008, but the program helped preserve $246 million in land, said Jill Ozarski, the executive director of the Colorado Coalition of Land Trusts.
“We’re very hopeful that (program) stays in there,” Ozarski said. “This is the kind of thing where in tough times we need to think about the future rather than the short term. The future is in maintaining the state’s scenic beauty.”
Land owners are eligible to get up to 50 percent of the price of a conservation easement in tax credits under the state program. The credits are capped at $375,000.
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Since the program was started eight years ago, it has helped protect 1.5 million acres of land in the state ” 10 times the size of Rocky Mountain National Park, Ozarski said.
If state officials were to get rid of that conservation incentive, it could cause more than one deal the Eagle Valley Land Trust is working on to fizzle, said Cindy Cohagen, executive director of the Land Trust.
“I can almost guarantee that there are a couple of donated easements that are in the process that would probably not move forward,” Cohagen said. “It would just be horrible to have deals unravel because of the program being suspended.”
A version of the state budget that includes the tax credit program has been submitted to Gov. Bill Ritter, but hasn’t been finalized.
“There’s still a lot that could happen in the last two weeks (of the legislative session),” Ozarski said.
State Sen. Al White, who represents Eagle County, said he would “vehemently” oppose any push to suspend the conversation easement program.
“There are a whole lot of good reasons to leave it alone,” White said. “I think keeping our working ranches working is all part of the culture and history of the West.”
The easement program drew criticism a few years ago because of some fraudulent deals and is under investigation by a grand jury.
“There were a small number of organizations doing some questionable tax credits,” Ozarski said. “Folks were calling themselves land trusts and saying what they were doing were conservation easements, when they weren’t.”
But the program has come a long way since then, Ozarski said. Land Trusts are now required to go through an accreditation process.
“There were some major problems but we’re confident in saying that we’ve put an end to that,” Ozarski said.
The Eagle Valley Land Trust is one of a handful of state land trusts to complete that program and favors the more stringent standards, Cohagen said.
“We very much believe in this kind of accountability for the industry,” Cohagen said. “We want people to trust us as much as they do their hospital or bank.”
Staff Writer Chris Outcalt can be reached at 970-748-2931 or firstname.lastname@example.org.