Urge Congress to Act Now: Pass the Charitable Conservation Easement Program Integrity Act

Important legislation would safeguard tax payers; uphold integrity of land conservation

Land conservation is built on trust. It’s built on the public’s trust that conservation organizations are doing the right thing. It’s built on the federal government’s trust that the tax breaks afforded to donating landowners are worthwhile and are being properly used by people donating a significant value from their land.

In Anne Arundel County, we are fortunate to have many conservation-minded landowners and public officials who champion the power of land conservation for the public good. When land is protected, whether it is public land or private land, we all benefit. Clean air, healthy waterways, diverse wildlife, natural places to spend time with one another—these are just some of the benefits of protected land.

Land conservation is the reason hundreds of hikers and bikers could take to the trails in parks like the Bacon Ridge Natural Area this fall for fresh air, exercise, and autumn scenery. This beautiful, protected forest in the heart of our county exists thanks to land conservation.

This is why it is of great concern to me that there are people in this nation breaking the trust bestowed upon the land conservation community.

In August, the U.S. Senate Finance Committee issued a thorough report detailing abuses of the federal conservation tax incentive. The report’s conclusions were stark: a few bad actors are brazenly exploiting conservation donations to avoid taxes and to enrich themselves at the expense of honest taxpayers—to the tune of about 6 billion over the last 10 years in lost tax revenue.

Luckily, these people rarely do their dark deeds in Maryland. But elsewhere in the country, well, they should be getting a sack of coal for Christmas.

These fraudulent transactions are called “syndicated easements.” To make a long story short, bad actors donate an easement and then convince an appraiser to give the easement a HUGE overvaluation. On average, the appraisal says the easement is worth about ten times what it actually is worth. These bad actors then use that appraisal to take a huge tax deduction that they didn’t earn.

These actions are breaking trust.

They’re not right, they’re abusive to the system we have built over the last 50 years, and they threaten the capacity of land conservation organizations in the future. What if the federal government gets fed up with all the abuses and takes away the conservation easement tax incentive program? It would dramatically slow the pace of land conservation. It would dramatically increase the cost of conserving land – right at a time when conserving our forests, wetlands, and farms is so important for so many reasons.

When used as intended, the federal conservation tax incentive is a powerful tool that has helped tens of thousands of landowners protect their land and provide food security, cultural remembrance, and ecological benefits to their entire community. If the tax incentives cease to exist, we will receive less donated easements, and will likely need to buy more easements – which are expensive.

Something needs to be done, soon. We need to tweak our land conservation system so that these bad actors can’t take advantage of it anymore.

Fortunately, there is a means to stop this egregious abuse and it is ready for Congress to pass. According to the Land Trust Alliance, the national association of land trusts, “The bipartisan Charitable Conservation Easement Program Integrity Act (S. 170 / H.R. 1992) will safeguard taxpayers by stopping these bad actors from their profiteering, all while allowing conservation donations motivated by charity to continue unimpeded. This legislation is concise, sensible and ready for passage in the House and Senate.”

Marylanders understand the value of land conservation. The long-term health of the Chesapeake Bay depends on it.

To their great credit, U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen has signed on as a sponsor of this important legislation in the Senate and U.S. Representative Jaime Raskin has signed on as sponsor in the House. We urge the other members of the Maryland delegation to work quickly to pass this legislation immediately. And, we urge you to reach out to your representatives and ask them to support the passage of this important bill to protect the interests of honest taxpayers and uphold the integrity of land conservation.

The clock is ticking…this legislation expires at the start of the new congress. Reintroducing it may take years and allow abusers to continue unabated.


Sarah Knebel
Executive Director

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