Land trust gets state seal of approval
January 20, 2010
SUMMIT COUNTY – After a statewide shake-up in the land conservation arena, Summit-based Continental Divide Land Trust earned the state’s seal of approval to continue protecting open space in the High Country.The nonprofit announced late last week that it received official certification under the State of Colorado’s new Conservation Easement Oversight Program.”It was a very thorough review of our policies,” CDLT director Leigh Girvin said of the certification process.A conservation easement allows a landowner to receive tax benefits in exchange for not developing his or her private land, thus protecting its conservation value. The landowner continues to own, manage and use the land, but agrees not to make changes that would impact scenic views, wildlife habitat, wetlands, watersheds, ranching or agriculture. A third-party organization holds the easement and ensures the character of the land is maintained.CDLT, formed in 1994, holds 15 conservation easements totaling about 2,600 acres in Summit and Park counties. One of its most well-known easements is the Giberson Ranch, about 200 acres above the Interstate 70 roundabout in Frisco.State tax benefits from conservation easements are especially attractive in Colorado, since they’re transferable. A lower-income landowner with a high-value conservation easement may choose to sell their tax credit for cash. Higher-income buyers can purchase the tax credit from the landowner for about 90 cents on the dollar and use it to reduce their own tax bill.”A lot of folks would rather have the cash to invest the money, buy a new combine to cut hay or put a kid through college. The Colorado model really creates a lot of incentive,” Girvin said.Unfortunately, that model attracted a handful of unscrupulous landowners and appraisers over the years who abused the system. Some land trust organizations held easements for lands appraised at far more than their actual value, resulting in huge tax benefits for landowners.”They had turned it into a scam. There was a perfect storm of unfortunate deals that came to light, and that’s what brought all this scrutiny on the rest of us,” Girvin said.In response to the abuses, the state developed the certification program to guard against any shenanigans on the part of appraisers, landowners or land-trust organizations.Land trusts had to be certified by Jan. 1 to accept any conservation easements this year.State officials pored over CDLT’s – and all other land trusts’ – policies and records to verify its program is bona fide.”They looked at every scrap of paper for each of those projects,” Girvin said of the easements state officials examined. “When we accept an easement, we accept perpetual responsibility to make sure the terms of the easement are upheld. They wanted to see all of our monitoring reports for every property.”The state certification process has resulted in improved professionalism and quality of conservation easement transactions statewide, according to the Division of Regulatory Affairs, which oversees the new program.”I do feel very confident in the system now,” Girvin said. “It weeded out the problem land trusts we had seen in the state.”Julie Sutor can be reached at (970) 668-4630 or email@example.com.