Landowner options

Cape Cod, and especially Wellfleet, lands need involvement by many to be preserved into perpetuity as the Cape Cod we appreciate. This can be a relatively simple or very complex action, so we are available to assist you in these actions.  This page provides an overview of the most common techniques for voluntary land protection. It should not be used as the only reference in making a decision. Landowners are encouraged to seek guidance from us or a tax attorney or accountant in order to determine the most suitable option. The Wellfleet Conservation Trust can identify attorneys, surveyors, appraisers, accountants, and land planners familiar with local conservation techniques. If you are contemplating such an action, we encourage you to talk with us (508-349-2162) or our advisors at the Compact of Cape Cod Conservation Trusts (508-694-7415)

Gifts of land

Outright donation (Fee Simple Transfer). Giving the land to a nonprofit conservation organization or to a government agency is the simplest way to protect land. It is only necessary to obtain acceptance from the agency or organization to which the land will be donated, prior to deeding the land. A gift insures long-term protection of the land. The donor receives tax benefits in the form of federal income tax deductions, potential estate tax benefits, and relief from property taxes. The donor is relieved of management responsibilities, and automatically absolved of liability associated with any trail use.

About 90 percent of the properties preserved on Cape Cod were donated to a local land trust or town conservation commission. About 50 parcels per year are donated outright in this manner. Typically, the only cost to the land donor is for an appraisal, which certifies the value of the donated land for federal income tax deductions. Appraisals are needed when the claimed value of the deduction is more than $5,000. Land trusts usually ask donors to pay remaining property taxes on the land before it becomes tax exempt in the next fiscal year.

Donation by Will (Bequest). A gift of land made through a will entitles the donor to retain full use of the land during his or her lifetime and assures that it will be cared for in the future. It is advisable to discuss the gift with the agency or organization prior to inclusion in a will, to insure a plan for the care of the land. The donor is responsible for real estate and income taxes for the property during his or her lifetime. But removing the land from an estate will reduce inheritance taxes.

Donation with a Reserved Life Estate. A donation with a reserved life estate may be made to a government agency or conservation organization. The donor retains the use of the land during his or her lifetime, and the lifetimes of specified family members. A reserved life estate insures that the land is protected in perpetuity, yet allows the donor to reside on it and maintain the land. The tax advantages with a retained life estate are less that those with an outright donation.

Sale of land

Bargain sale. For a landowner interested in conservation who cannot donate land directly, a bargain sale of property to a land trust insures the land will be protected. With this option, the land trust purchases land at less than full-market value. The benefit to the landowner is twofold:
1. the sale produces needed income and,
2. he/she can claim the difference between the sale and full-market value as a tax-deductible donation.
More intangible but equally important, landowners can be assured that valuable land and water resources will be protected

Sale at fair market value. Sale at fair market value is the sale of property at the price a knowledgeable buyer would pay for the land. Most conservation organizations are not able to purchase land at full value due to insufficient funds. If the land is sold at full value and has appreciated in value since its purchase, the seller will be liable for income tax on the capital gain. This can affect the net profit from the sale. There are no charitable deductions associated with a sale at full value.

Conservation restriction

Donation of a conservation restriction. A conservation restriction (or CR) is a voluntary, legal agreement between a landowner and a land trust, such as the Wellfleet Conservation Trust, or a government agency, that limits a property’s uses in order to protect its conservation values.

When you own land, you also hold many rights associated with it, such as the right to build structures. When you create a conservation restriction, you agree to modify or give up some of those rights. For example, you might give up the right to build more houses, while retaining the right to keep a view open or create gardens. Future owners also will be bound by the terms of the agreement. In exchange for giving up the right to develop the land, the assessed value of the property is typically greatly reduced, substantially cutting down on the property tax due on the land every year. Also, a charitable deduction is available for taax purposes the year that the CR is donated. The conservation restriction is a very flexible tool, and can be an exceedingly useful tool in estate planning.

The conservation restriction (called a “conservation easement” in some states) is drafted in a way to protect critical open space resources and meet the financial and personal needs of the landowner. In some cases, a conservation restriction may apply to just a portion of the property, leaving the option of development open for the remaining part. Most restrictions are intended to be permanent.

The holder of the restriction takes on the responsibility and legal right to enforce the agreement. If a future owner or someone else violates the agreement (perhaps by erecting a building the restriction doesn’t allow) the holder will work to correct the violation.Owners of highly valued property may also use the restriction to lower the value of their estate for estate tax (or inheritance tax) planning. The combined federal and state estate tax can be as high as 55%, sometimes forcing children to sell the property simply to pay off the “death taxes”. A conservation restriction can lower the estate tax, and perhaps provide the way for heirs to retain title to a cherished family asset. Estate planning with the aid of professional advisors is critical

Sale of a Conservation Restriction. A conservation restriction is also sometimes sold by the landowner to the acquiring entity. All of the above comments regarding a donated CR still hold, with the exception that no charitable tax deduction is available, unless it is a bargain sale of the CR.

State Income Tax Credit for Land Conservation

Landowners who engage in conservation transactions (as above) with non-profit land trusts, towns or agencies may be eligible for a powerful tax advantage—a refundable State income tax credit worth up to $75,000.  This should be exciting news for landowners.  While there have always been income tax deductions available for land gifts on a donor’s federal returns, there have never been any incentives on the State tax side.  Now there are both.

You do not need to reside in Massachusetts or even pay taxes here; so long as you own the land, and the land qualifies, you qualify.  Contact The Compact of Cape Cod Conservation Trusts at 508-694-7415 or here for more information.

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