About 130 acres of land on the Vineyard was permanently protected from development under new conservation restrictions in 2007, according to state government figures.
The relatively disappointing result was in spite of generous tax incentives — which expired at year’s end — and in sharp contrast to figures for the state as a whole.
Statewide, 266 new conservation restrictions, covering a total area of 11,200 acres were signed off by the secretary of the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, Ian Bowles.
But on the Vineyard, there were just eight new areas, a spokesman for the office said.
Island conservation organizations expressed some disappointment with the result, but were hopeful the tax incentives would be reinstated in legislation due up later this year, leading to better results in the future.
The generous tax incentives came into force about 18 months ago, but included a sunset date of Dec. 31 2007.
Brendan O’Neill, executive director of the Vineyard Conservation Society, explained how the system worked, and hopefully will work again.
“These so called conservation restrictions, provided for under the state statutes, are permanent protections where the land remains in private ownership, but the donor, the landowner gives away developability,” he said, continuing:
“So an appraiser can come out and say ‘Hey, you’re giving away three building sites’ or whatever. And the appraiser attests to the value ceded and that becomes a charitable income tax deduction for the donors when they file their annual returns.”
The problem was, when the scheme first began to operate decades ago, the Internal Revenue Service determined that deduction could only be up to 30 per cent of the donor’s adjusted gross income per year for five years.
“The incentives for making gifts of conservation restrictions hadn’t been updated for decades, so the incentives were becoming less as land became more valuable, and we saw a dropping-off in the rate of gifts of conservation restrictions in recent years,” Mr. O’Neill said. He also said:
“On Martha’s Vineyard and other places where land was very valuable, someone with an average income would never be able to recoup a gift of say a million dollars.
“The federal change was simply an increase in the amount you could deduct per year to 50 per cent per year, and they bumped up the carryover period to 15 years.
“At that rate, the incentive became more worthwhile, because people might actually be able to benefit from the full amount of the gift over 15 years.”
The Conservation Partnership, comprising the Island’s major conservation organizations,
did a mass mailing early last year, bringing the change to the notice of landholders who might be encouraged to cede development rights (or give land outright; the tax break also applied to gifts).
“But I think its fair to say, compared with what we’ve heard in the off-Island setting, we
didn’t see the flood gates opening,” Mr. O’Neill said.
The conservation society secured no conservation restrictions last year, but other groups did, most notably the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation, which concluded three agreements covering more than half the total area put into protection last year.
“We got three conservation restrictions for about 70 acres total — one up Indian Hill Road next to Cedar Tree Neck. Another was out near Wintucket Cove and the third was at Swan Neck,” said foundation executive director Richard Johnson.
“It was a good year for us, although it wasn’t a great number overall, compared with the
state as a whole [where] they got a huge number of conservation restrictions,” he said, adding:
“Maybe that was just because the Vineyard does so much conservation anyway. Maybe it wasn’t as much of an incentive here as other places.”
The Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank also did well; state figures showed it having negotiated conservation restrictions for three areas of land in West Tisbury totaling about 65.5 acres.
Also in West Tisbury, the Vineyard Open Land Foundation secured 5.7 acres preserving scenic views, and a restriction held by the town of West Tisbury on Middle Point Road covers 2.91 acres.
Matt Pelikan, Islands program manager for The Nature Conservancy, whose organization also secured no conservation restrictions last year, said he thought the increased tax incentives had not been in place long enough to really affect donor intentions.
“I’m not sure if any of those were really helped along by the tax breaks. There was a certain amount of interest demonstrated in people’s responses to our mailout,” he said, “but my opinion is that the lead times for these things on the Vineyard are so long that you wouldn’t necessarily expect changes in the first year or two of a new tax policy.
“So I hope it is renewed.”
The good news is that it is likely to be.
Tax breaks identical to those which expired at the end of 2007 are included in the new Farm Bill, expected to pass Congress in March.