Marie Antoinette, the last Queen of France, has been credited with the saying “let them eat cake.” There is no proof that she actually said that, but her opulent life style and complete indifference to the winds of social change that was sweeping France made her susceptible to the accusation. She and her husband, King Louis XVI, ruled France in the fashion of the imperialist aristocrats that they were. The King was guillotined in January 1793. She followed him to the guillotine in October of the same year. The people of France, inspired by the American Revolution, had decided that they had enough of their leadership. As in America, the French people had been taxed disproportionately that led to the inevitable class warfare. In both cases the existing government had piled up massive debts and kept raising taxes on segments of the population that were easily marginalized while exempting favored segments.
In today’s America we are seeing a rise in what is known as State and Local Taxes, SALT for short. In rural areas, an increasingly popular method for reducing one’s SALT load are conservation easements.
Currently, it is estimated that 56 million acres in the United States are now enrolled in some form of conservation easement. In Colorado latest figures cite an estimated 3,084,735 acres in these easements and on a local level, Montezuma Land Conservancy holds over 42,000 acres in Trust. Another way to visualize these figures is that if you doubled the land of all the national parks in the contiguous United States you would need more to equal the amount of land held in trust as open space. Of that 56 million acres, one half is in the Western one third of our country. Media headlines invariably celebrate the protection of open space, another victory for wildlife and the planet. A family farm saved for future generations. Absent, for the most part, in these public announcements is the loss of revenue, and the fact that some of these lands can and are being developed.
The IRS is questioning clauses in these easements that involve issues of over appraised values, merged estates, vague development details, and floating home sites to name a few of the more problematic concerns. After all, if you have been paid to forego development rights, it is only reasonable to expect there to be no development.
On Feb. 4, I listened to heart-wrenching stories of people who in good faith wanted to preserve their land only to blunder into a governmental nightmare.
As I listened to testimony on House Bill 19-1091, a bill that called for transparency in conservation easements, I began to see the absolute injustice that these easements are bringing to Colorado. Individuals from Colorado’s Front Range to the western edge around Grand Junction testified how they had been misled by various groups representing land trusts, and the economic hardships they were now facing as a consequence.
Erik Glenn, executive director of the Colorado Cattleman’s Agricultural Land Trust (CCALT) testified against the bill. Essentially he maintained that the bill, as written, violated the privacy and property rights of easement holders and that it would expand government. He went on to compare that what had happened to the previous individuals testifying to the subprime mortgage meltdown of 2008. Those individuals had been deceived by unscrupulous financial advisors like Bernie Madoff. Not his problem, nor was it government’s responsibility.
Perhaps. Perhaps not.
The sheer number of acres in conservation easements affect property tax revenue. It doesn’t take a crystal ball to see that when states lose revenue, others need to pay more to compensate for that loss.
The fact that GOCO money is also being funneled towards these easements in various ways tends to negate the privacy rights issue. In addition to GOCO funds, some easement holders are benefiting from government farm programs as well. According to the Environmental Working Group only 30 percent of Colorado farm producers apply for subsidies. Some of these private landowners are making Queen Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI look like amateurs when it comes to raking in public funds while lowering their tax obligations.
I emailed every member of the Rural Affairs and Agriculture Committee after HB 19-1091 was killed on a party line vote. I requested information as to why they voted against transparency and how they thought a bill that addresses the problems associated with these easements could be passed. As I write this, out of the 11 committee members, only two responded. Both of them were Republicans.
Colorado Coalition of Land Trusts (CCLT), which is an industry in itself, will be proposing legislation later this session to extend the tax credits which are set to expire on July 1, 2019. They also say they want to address transparency and disclosure issues. I believe it is time to allow the tax credits to expire. Simply put, there are just too many unresolved problems with conservation easements. Allies of the conservation industry have been wildly successful in sugar coating easements as a win/win scenario. Eventually, the truth about the dark side of these easements will seep into the general public’s consciousness on a level that will demand attention.
Valerie Maez writes from Lewis, Colo.