Losing a tool for open space

Nov. 17, 2013 @ 03:16 PM

Members of the Carrington family recently took a commendable step to help ensure Durham retains open space and rural character in some areas, even as the attractiveness of this metropolitan area to new residents and businesses threatens to overwhelm eventually our relatively small land area.

The Carringtons sold a conservation easement on their 89 acres in northern Durham County, giving up most rights to develop the land and in turn being paid the difference between the land’s value if it were developable and its value as protected farmland.

Durham County’s laudable Farmland Protection Program paid half the cost. Through the program, Durham County recognizes the public interest in giving landowners incentives to protect their land from encroaching development.

“Our plans don’t recommend that everything be suburbanized and developed,” Jane Korest, who heads the county’s open space and real estate division, told The Herald-Sun’s Laura Oleniacz. “We want to retain something of the farmland in our community.

“And if we don’t take active measures to help ensure that happens, we could look, 100 years from now, and everything’s slowly and incrementally developed.”

The county’s farmland protection program plays an important role in taking those active measures, as does the Federal Farm and Ranchlands Protection Program that kicked in the other half of the cost of the easement on the Carrington land. 

Unfortunately, another tool in our kit for helping to preserve some land from urban and suburban sprawl is about to disappear. A conservation easement tax credit that’s been on North Carolina’s books for three decades is expiring at the end of this year.

It was a little noticed casualty of tax reform legislation passed by this year’s General Assembly and signed into law by Gov. Pat McCrory.  To be sure, it is easy to rally around any of the manifold tax credits or loopholes that have littered our increasingly outdated taxation system, and that’s what has made meaningful tax reform so difficult.

But it is, as Russell Shay, director of public policy for the Washington, D.C.-based Land Trust Alliance, said last week “really very sad” to be losing the conservation tax credits. They have helped encourage landowners to donate land when funds for purchasing the easements have been exhausted.

And while we hope the economic stimulus the tax-reform package backers promised do indeed materialize, it’s also true there can be opportunity cost in losing the lure for more conservation easements.

Shay emphasized what we believe – that our state’s landscape is vital, “not just as a natural asset but as an economic asset, not just as farmland but as scenery that draws tourism.”

Chad Jemison, executive director of the Triangle Land Conservancy, said last week that he’s confident that “champions will emerge to find a new way forward.”

We hope he is right.