Exemptions considered for conservation trusts

June 29, 1994|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,Sun Staff Writer

The Anne Arundel County Council is considering offering county property tax exemptions for land in local conservation trusts.

If the measure is adopted Tuesday night, Anne Arundel would be the second county in the state to use a financial incentive to encourage people to leave their forests, meadows and other land undeveloped. The measure is possible under a state law that took effect July 1991. The Harford County Council enacted a similar measure June 21. To be eligible, the land would have to be used for environmental education, to promote conservation, help preserve a natural area, or maintain a wildlife sanctuary.

The county auditor's office projects the county would lose about $5,400 in revenue in fiscal year 1996, said Assistant County Auditor Bruce Emge. The county could lose as much as $10,800 for fiscal year 1998.

Those projections are based on the fact that the county lost about $3,800 this year on seven properties in conservation easements held by the Maryland Environmental Trust. The state agency grants state and local property tax forgiveness. With 272 conservation easements on 41,746 acres in the state, the agency generally does not consider parcels under 25 acres. The county measure would not have a size limit.

"There are a couple of people that we will get back to after this bill goes through," said Sally Horner, executive director of the Magothy River Land Trust. "I think it will make a difference to some people."

The trust, only 1 1/2 years old, has no properties yet.

"There are a lot of very nice pieces of property around the state that would be of local interest," said Pam Bush, special projects and planning supervisor for the state trust. "The Anne Arundel bill is a very nice bill and it would help land conservation in the area."

John Sherwood, executive director of the Severn River Land Trust, said the measure is "very progressive for the county."

"It will help. It will definitely attract the interest of property owners," said Mr. Sherwood, whose trust holds conservation easements on 58 acres, some of them held with the state agency so the owners get the tax break.

The Anne Arundel bill, sponsored by Councilwoman Virginia Clagett of West River, would go further in some respects than the state trust program or the Harford County program. It would offer easements in perpetuity; the Maryland Environmental Trust offers 15-year easements. It also proposes full local tax relief on the property each year; the Harford measure offers up to a $500 local tax credit.

People who withdraw from the Anne Arundel conservation trust would have to pay back taxes dating to the day the land was put in the trust, plus 1 percent interest a month.

Seven land trusts in the county can accept conservation easements or land donations.

Each holds no more than a few parcels.

"The people who are making the decision to give up the options on their land . . . they are doing a lot for the citizens in Anne Arundel County," Mrs. Clagett said. "One way to encourage them to do that is to forgive them their property taxes."

She said she didn't propose the measure sooner because the state and county governments were fighting the effects of the recession.

Council Chairman C. Edward Middlebrooks said, "I think there is some need for it. I think we should encourage people to do things for the environment."

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