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Action in Congress adds to local land trust work

Recent U.S. congressional action extending tax benefits for conservation agreement donors already is creating more work for local land trust leaders.

But North Olympic Land Trust’s Conservation Committee co-chairman John Willits doesn’t mind.

Congressional action on June 18 lets property owners who complete permanent legal conservation agreements by the end of 2009 get the same expanded tax benefits that were in effect in 2006 and 2007. Lower-level benefits will return in 2010 unless Congress adopts additional legislation.

Willits said he’s working with several property owners who had been waiting while hoping the higher tax benefits would be extended. He expects another “land rush” as more landowners become aware of those benefits. He credits the previous two years of increased tax benefits with stimulating a record number of inquiries and as many agreements as the land trust’s staff and volunteers could help property owners get completed.

Willits said tax benefits are based on development rights property owners give up. Most people complete conservation agreements because they want qualities of their land to be protected permanently, not so they can receive tax benefits, Willits said.

“But the tax benefits can be significant for owners and for their heirs and the new laws certainly provide good incentives,” he said.

The land trust leader said it is important for people considering agreements to get started now.

“We’ve expanded our ability to provide services but permanent legal agreements take time. We don’t want people to run out of time for getting everything completed before the next expiration date, at the end of 2009,” Willits said.

“This extended tax benefit provides a cost-effective way to protect qualities that are important for current and future generations,” Willits said. “People get to continue to own and use their land. They pay property taxes at an appropriate level, considering the uses they give up. It’s really a win-win opportunity.”

Willits has been helping North Olympic Land Trust and local property owners establish agreements almost since local citizens established the nonprofit organization in 1990. A farm he and his wife, Pat, own was the first property the land trust protected through an agreement. They have protected more than 120 acres in the Sequim-Dungeness Valley so the land always will be available for habitat and agriculture. Nash’s Organic Produce farms most of the land.

Under the legislation passed in June, landowners donating conservation agreements can:

• Deduct up to 50 percent of their income in any year — up from the previous 30-percent limit.

• Deduct up to 100 percent of their income if they meet qualifications as farmers or ranchers.

• Increase the number of years for taking deductions to 16 — up from the previous six years.

The local land trust’s new executive director Greg Good said he and other staff members are eager to help with the extra work they expect from the tax benefit extension.

Good, who was deputy director of a Colorado land trust before taking the top position with NOLT, said he thinks landowners like the idea of creating permanent, legal conservation agreements with the land trust.

“Our quality of life and local economy are dependent upon protecting values that are the very reason people love to live, work and vacation here on the North Olympic Peninsula,” he observed.

More information about North Olympic Land Trust’s services is available from www.northolympiclandtrust.org or from the office, 417-1815. The nationwide Land Trust Alliance also has information at www.lta.org.

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