Guilderland landowners who eschew development are now eligible to apply for tax breaks

— Photo from Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy

Open space: The Normans Kill East Preserve in Bethlehem consists of 15 acres of protected land along the Normanskill.

GUILDERLAND — Guilderland residents who want to preserve their land for the future while still owning it will be able apply for tax breaks if they agree to forego development.
“We want to make sure we have as many tools as possible to preserve open space ...,” Guilderland Supervisor Peter Barber told The Enterprise on Tuesday. “There could be people out there who want their land protected.”

The initiative is made possible through a bill sponsored by Democrats Michelle Hinchey in the State Senate and by Patricia Fahy in the State Assembly that was signed into law by Governor Andrew Cuomo last week.

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.

The town will soon have an application on its website that interested property owners can fill out, Barber said.

The applications will be reviewed by a yet-to-be-appointed committee, he said.

Ideally, the members will have a background in land-use planning, Barber said, and will meet regularly with representatives from the Open Space Institute, The Nature Conservancy, the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy, the Pine Bush Preserve Commission, and even the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation.

“The bill has been pending for almost three years,” said Barber, crediting George Amedore, the Republican senator who retired, as well as Hinchey, who replaced him, and Fahy.

The Guilderland initiative is part of a nationwide movement to preserve open space, which has gotten added impetus from the Biden administration.

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.

Barber stressed that Guilderland is in the earliest stages of setting up a review process and he thought perhaps the school district would have to agree to the tax breaks as well.

The largest share of local property taxes go to schools. When tax breaks are granted to one property owner, other property owners have to make up the difference.

“Different parameters will be in play,” Barber said, citing an example of tax breaks that would differ if the property owner agreed to not develop his land for a number of years or in perpetuity.

Easements may vary with purpose, Barber said — for example, giving up development rights to protect a view or to promote bird-watching.

Barber said that Mark King, who directs the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy, often gets phone calls from people interested in conserving their land. Guilderland’s initiative will provide another means, he said.

Some people owning property surrounding the Watervliet Reservoir, which is Guilderland’s major source of drinking water, have expressed interest in protecting their land, Barber said, which the DEC would like.

Barber said he could not divulge the names of those particular property owners and added that, even within families, there is sometimes disagreement about whether to sell property and get money up front or hold on to it with a tax break.

Barber also said that the townwide revaluation Guilderland went through several years ago may have spiked the assessment on large parcels of property, spurring interest in this new initiative.

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

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