Boston (AP) — The 72-acre parcel owned by Bette and Bernard
Holmes was a developer’s dream, with more than 1,500 feet of pond
front and room for 26 homes.
But after the cranberry-growing Plymouth couple sat down with
their children in 2003 to discuss out what to do with the property,
Bette, 73, and Bernard, 83, decided to let the land’s original
inhabitants – including rare flowers and an endangered red-bellied
frog – stay put by selling the parcel, then assessed at $1.25
million, to the Nature Conservancy.
“This has always been virgin land out here and we like the idea
of keeping it that way,” Bette Holmes said. “We’re not against
development, but does every inch of town have to be developed?”
A new law signed by Gov. Deval Patrick is designed to encourage
others to follow the Holmes’ lead by creating a state income tax
credit for landowners who voluntarily donate property to their
local community, the state or a nonprofit conservation group.
The land must meet certain criteria, from protecting drinking
water or providing a habitat for wildlife to offering scenic vistas
or helping support tourism and agriculture. The landowners must
agree to permanently protect the land from development in exchange
for the tax credit valued at half the appraised value of the
Individual credits are capped at $50,000. If the credit exceeds
a donor’s total state income tax for a single year, it can be
spread out up to 10 years.
Conservationists hailed the new law, saying it will help protect
Massachusetts’ rapidly dwindling open lands, which are being
gobbled up at an estimated rate of 44 acres a day.
Jennifer Ryan of Mass Audubon said conservation groups have been
pushing for the tax break for years. She said similar efforts have
worked in states like North Carolina and Colorado.
“We have had people who have been holding out for years waiting
for a tax credit,” she said.
She also said the tax credit isn’t limited just to wildlife
habitats, but will also help preserve farmland that otherwise might
be turned into strip malls or suburban subdivisions.
Backers of the initiative say it won’t stop development, but
will create another tool for those trying to preserve the state’s
natural heritage. That’s particularly important, they say, to lure
property owners who are “land rich but cash poor.”
“Often landowners are looking for an option to conserve land
permanently, they want to preserve it for future generations,” said
Stephen Long of the Nature Conservancy. “This bill allows a lot of
Long said the new law will also help conservation groups. If a
piece of land is assessed at $200,000 and a local land trust can
only come up with $150,000, the new law allows the landowner to
donate the remaining $50,000 for a state tax credit.
Massachusetts Environmental Affairs Secretary Ian Bowles said
the new law complements the administration’s efforts to preserve
more open spaces. Gov. Patrick has vowed to invest at least $50
million annually over the next five years in land conservation.
During the 2008 fiscal year that ended June 30, Massachusetts
protected 24,104 acres of land – almost twice the amount of the
previous fiscal year. The state spent $55 million on grants, to buy
land outright, or to pay landowners not to develop their property.
Private groups and municipalities spent another $32 million.
Officials say the total amount of protected land in
Massachusetts is on track to break 1.2 million acres by the end of
the current fiscal year on June 30.
Bowles said the new law will help guarantee that the trend
“This incentive is an important new tool for private landowners
who are partnering with us to preserve the forests, fields,
coastlines, and mountaintops that define the Massachusetts
landscape,” Bowles said.
The state is able to protect more land by paying owners to agree
to restrict development rather than by purchasing parcels
The state spent an average of $1,900 per acre on restrictions
compared to $3,600 per acre on purchases. Restrictions not only
make more economic sense, allowing the state to protect more land
with the same amount of money, but also lets the land remain in
private hands, subject to taxes and in some cases to be used for
farming or forestry.
Whatever the cost, Bette Holmes said she hopes the law will
inspire other landowners. In the end, she said, she and her husband
decided preserving the 72-acre parcel was an important part of
“People always say we are going to preserve the land, but they
don’t always do it,” she said. “My kids concurred that they would
really rather have the land stay open space.”