Guilderland on the cusp of offering tax breaks for land conservation

— Photo from the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy

The Normans Kill West Preserve, in the town of Bethlehem, consists of 30 acres of protected land along the Normanskill, a significant tributary to the Hudson River.

GUILDERLAND — The town plans to follow the lead of its neighbor, Bethlehem, in giving tax breaks to residents who commit to leaving their land open.

The town board has scheduled a hearing on the local law for March 15 at 7 p.m.

“We want to make sure we have as many tools as possible to preserve open space ...,” Guilderland Supervisor Peter Barber told The Enterprise last July, just after the legislation making the exemption program possible was signed into law. “There could be people out there who want their land protected,” he said.

In 2009, a section of the state’s Real Property Tax Law made the authorization for certain towns. In 2017, the neighboring town of Bethlehem set up such a program through Albany County legislation.

“We’re taking a different approach than Bethlehem,” Barber said last summer. “Going through the state rather than the county will be more comprehensive.”

On Tuesday, Barber told the town board that Guilderland is the third or fourth municipality in the state to get this legislation.

He noted that the local law, once passed, would apply just to town tax breaks, not to county or school taxes; school taxes are the most significant.

After the town adopts the law, Barber said, the school districts — Guilderland had five — and the county would be asked to provide the same tax relief.

“But they don’t have to,” he said.

Referring to Bethlehem, Barber said, “It took about a year for the county to go along with it. Probably the same amount of time for the Bethlehem School District to go along with it.”

Referring to Guilderland’s five districts, Barber went on, “It’s going to take a little bit of effort to reach out to these school districts and get them to understand the importance of the open space.”

Barber said he had spoken to Marie Wiles, the superintendent of the Guilderland schools, and described her as “very supportive” of green initiatives.

Ultimately, elected school board members would have to approve the tax breaks.

Guilderland’s bill, which is to be posted to the town’s website, lists four levels of commitment, each with a different percentage of tax exemption; the longer the time commitment the greater the tax break:

— A commitment of 15 to 29 years nets a 50-percent tax break;

— A commitment of 30 to 49 years nets a 75-percent tax break;

— A commitment of 50 to 75 years nets a 85-percent tax break; and

— A perpetual commitment nets a 90-percent tax break.

Penalties for offenses are stiff.

Repayment of abated taxes, the bill says, “shall be equal to five times the taxes saved in the last year in which the land benefited from a conservation easement exemption, plus interest of six percent per year compounded annually for each year in which an exemption was granted, not exceeding five years.”

The bill includes a sample application for landowners to fill out and also says that the town board is to appoint a board to review applications.

Barber, at Tuesday’s meeting, suggested the town’s Conservation Advisory Council could fill this role with the addition of the parks director and town planner. Several board members agreed.

Bethlehem, Barber said, receives only about one application a year.

Board members had some debate over the bill’s list of permitted uses, under the easement, such as harvesting timber. Board member Laurel Bohl said it seemed counter to the whole idea of a conservation easement to allow stripping the land of trees.

Barber said he didn’t want to be delayed by a debate over timberland and suggested following best practices for a farmer; that may mean selling apple trees because apple wood is worth a lot of money, he said.

Barber also said he’d have no problem deleting all of the examples after the first sentence, which reads: “Development of any kind is not permitted on land included in a conservation easement (for the length of the agreement). This includes, but is not limited to, residential, commercial, and industrial development and the placement of cell towers or other telecommunications facilities, solar, wind or farm waste facilities."

While some people perceive of the proposal as a shifting of the tax burden to other residents, Barber asserted, “It is not.” He said this is because land values typically increase.

Bohl concluded, “This is a great plan that could help a lot of residents and lower your tax bill.”


Big picture

Part of President Joe Biden’s climate-change agenda is protecting 30 percent of United States lands and ocean territories by 2030, known as “30 by 30.” Currently, about 26 percent of the United States’ ocean territories are protected but only about 12 percent of the nation’s land area is protected.

The protection is meant to stem climate change since natural landscapes pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store carbon in trees, shrubs, grass, and soil.

As of 2016, fifty-six million acres of land had been voluntarily conserved in America, according to the National Land Trust Alliance.

In New York, over 90 land trusts and the Department of Environmental Conservation have worked to protect over 2.7 million acres, placing the state fifth in the country behind Maine, with about 5.8 million acres; California, with close to 5 million acres; Montana, with 3.5 million acres; and Colorado, which has about 3 million acres of protected land.

Towns and land trusts can help landowners find the conservation program that best benefits their property.

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