By Vaughn Deckret
During the past few decades, the Maryland countryside has undergone worrisome changes. In many counties, landscapes that were once purely rural are taking on the look of suburbia. Where tractors and pickup trucks once plied the roads, cars carrying commuters and school children now make up the bulk of traffic. Fields and rolling hills that annually bore corn, beans and winter wheat now sport permanent crops of houses. Rural intersections formerly marked by a general store and a clapboard home or two are now hodgepodges of gas stations, banks, fast-food joints and supermarkets.
We are losing a key element of our Maryland
heritage: the character and charm of lands passed down to us through
generations. To preserve our heritage of farmlands and forests, the Maryland
Environmental Trust (MET) helps conservation-minded landowners safeguard their
properties from development.
The Trust’s mission by law is “to conserve,
improve, stimulate and perpetuate the aesthetic, natural, health and welfare,
scenic and cultural qualities of the environment.” In other words, its purpose
is to protect land when its preservation is in the public interest.
Additionally, MET is charged with promoting awareness and participation in land
preservation among the people of Maryland.
A conservation easement allows the state and its residents the limited right to “use” a landowner’s property as a means of conserving land having environmental and cultural significance. A landowner who agrees to an easement remains the owner but accepts permanent limits on development rights. An easement usually specifies such matters as the number of subdivisions or houses that can be built on the site, if any.
A conservation easement does not grant public access to a property unless a landowner specifically wishes to do so. Conservation easements are tailored to fit a landowner’s circumstances and desires, and the terms of an easement are reached only after detailed discussions between a landowner and MET.
Certain terms, however, apply to all conservation easements. For example, accumulating trash and harming wetlands on the property are prohibited. Signs are allowed only for particular purposes, such as to convey historical information. With some exceptions, streams, rivers and Chesapeake Bay shoreline require a forested or vegetative buffer 100-feet wide for protection. Other than farming, forestry and horticulture, commercial activities are not permissible but this restriction does not apply to small-scale activities within residential and agricultural buildings.
A landowner is always free to sell or mortgage
the land, but an easement legally binds all future owners of the property.
Second, landowners benefit by reducing their taxes. Though easement donors are not primarily motivated by money — almost invariably, selling land to developers is more lucrative — the tax advantages are significant and serve as important incentives.
As a charitable deduction, an easement can be applied to both federal and state income taxes. Most landowners, however, can save more by rejecting the state deduction in favor of a new state income tax credit for easements, which can be carried forward 15 years. Also, a landowner pays no property tax on an easement for 15 years.
Because limits on development lower the
appraised value of land, conservation easements can reduce estate taxes as well.
A landowner can use a will to donate an easement, however donating during one’s
lifetime captures income tax benefits and is therefore usually a better option.
Once a landowner decides to donate an easement, MET staff will visit and research the property to document its structures, uses and conservation features. The landowner and staff then settle on the conditions and draft a deed of conservation easement.
After review by the MET board of trustees, the deed is signed by the landowner, MET director, and assistant attorney general and sent to the Board of Public Works for approval. MET then records the deed in the county lands records office and makes copies of the deed. The landowner should file an application for the state income tax credit by June 30 and should complete a federal charitable-deduction form.
The entire process takes two to three months, and all MET services are free of charge.
MET’s Green Acres
Clearly, much credit for this accomplishment lies with the MET staff and board of trustees. Other DNR staff members played important supportive roles, as do many of the 52 local land trusts across the state that work with MET on easement projects. Nevertheless, most of the credit must go to the landowners themselves, for their commitment to preservation.
Calculating precisely how much these protected acres benefit the Chesapeake Bay, habitat, wildlife and water quality would be a formidable task. Calculating the intangible benefits of preserved heritage seems impossible. Just remember that the next time you drive down a rural road, that lift of spirit you get from the sight and smell of the fresh countryside might be coming to you courtesy of some farsighted landowners a and our friends at the MET.
Vaughn Deckret, a staff editor and writer in DNR's Office of Communications and Marketing.
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