Anyone who drives around Bedford County and other rural spots in Tennessee knows that growth is slowly eroding the peace and quiet of the countryside and replacing it with subdivisions.
However, a new law passed by Congress is giving landowners an incentive for conservation easement donations, resulting in permanently preserving their land while giving the owner increased federal income tax benefits.
Eileen Hennessy, land protection director for Land Trust of Tennessee, recently held a meeting in Bell Buckle about the idea. Concerns about growth and the loss of the quality of life have been a hot topic for the small community for the past several years.
Hennessy said that landowners present "asked very good questions and were a curious and interested group."
Section 1026 of the Pension Protection Act of 2006 allows family farmers, ranchers and other landowners to receive a significant tax benefit for donation of a conservation easement, which would restrict any future development on the land while allowing the owner to maintain their private property rights.
The bill, applicable for 2006-07, raises the deduction a landowner can take for donating a conservation easement from 30 percent of their income in any year to 50 percent.
Qualifying farmers and farm corporations may deduct up to 100 percent of their income; and the bill increases the number of years over which a donor can take those deductions from six to 16, beginning the year the donation is made.
Working with willing landowners, the Land Trust works to find ways to preserve the historic, scenic and natural values of their property with the donation of conservation easements, which the trust holds in perpetuity. They are already working with several landowners in Bedford County, but the group is respecting their confidentiality until the projects are completed.
Jeanie Nelson, executive director of the Land Trust for Tennessee, says they hear from many family farmers "who want to protect the land that they have lived and worked on for generations, as well as individuals who have recently purchased land to start a new family legacy.
"This new bill will help make permanent land conservation more financially possible for all of them."
The landowner can continue to own and use or sell their property within the limitations agreed upon in the conservation easement. The tax incentives are seen as a way to thank landowners who might be giving up millions of dollars in development rights to protect the land.
Hennessy says the Land Trust is protecting a variety of critical lands and landscapes.
"Some are historic properties, working farms, river corridors, or scenic views along highways like the Natchez Trace Parkway," Hennessy said.
The Land Trust is also working closely with the agricultural community. A majority of the protected acres have working farm aspects or forest management aspects.
"Since we work in a number of counties throughout the region, we serve as the local land trust and serve the conservation needs the community identifies." Hennessy said. "We work only in areas where landowners and communities have asked us to work. Sometimes that is a neighborhood, a river valley, a scenic corridor or a farming area."
Sites near Sewanee and in Maury County have been just some of the property preserved over the past few years by the Trust.
The Pension Protection Act of 2006, which contains the new conservation tax incentives, was signed into law by President Bush on Aug. 17. The Land Trust for Tennessee currently protects some 17,000 acres, the majority of it in Middle Tennessee, by using permanent conservation easements.
More than 1,300 private land trusts are in operation throughout the United States, protecting more than 4.6 million acres of open space, farm, woodlands, scenic corridors and historic places.
Hennessy said the new income tax benefits are raising interest across the region and are accelerating the decision-making for some families. The chance for landowners to take advantage of the tax benefits is scheduled to end on Dec. 31, but once granted the tax benefits will stay in place.