Daily Local: Conservation Groups Support Open-space Tax Incentive
Wednesday, June 29, 2011
By EVAN BRANDT
LIMERICK — It may not have been baseball and apple pie, but it’s hard to get more American than Christmas trees and blueberry pie (with a little Phillies baseball and beer thrown in for good measure.)
All were in evidence under an azure blue sky Wednesday as conservation groups from throughout southeast Pennsylvania gathered to support making permanent a federal tax incentive for preserving open space — and to thank the effort’s champion in Washington, U.S. Rep. Jim Gerlach, R-6th, of West Pikeland.
They gathered on the Neiffer Road farm of Don Hawthorne, an example of how the incentive works, to push to make it lasting.
In 2009, Hawthorne, who grows Christmas trees, blueberries and fruit, donated the development rights — also known as a “conservation easement” — for the 28-acre farm to Montgomery County Lands Trust by using the tax incentive first adopted in 2006.
Hawthorne thanked Gerlach for supporting the legislation “on behalf of my Christmas tree customers, my blueberry customers, my tomato customers and my cider customers.”
Also present to voice their support and stand as examples were Charles and Sandy Koenig, who donated the development rights to 14.1 acres in Limerick along a tributary of the Perkiomen Creek and where they built the first house in Pennsylvania to receive a “platinum” certification for meeting Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards.
“When landowners donate conservation easements to preserve their land, they are voluntarily giving up value in what for many is their greatest asset,” said Sherri Stanton-Evans, director of the Brandywine Conservancy’s Environmental Management Center.
But for those who choose to donate, other values are often more important than market value.
“For a few, value is dollars and cents,” said Molly Morrison, president of the Natural Lands Trust. “But for others, the values that are more important are family, legacy, land to grow food, quality of life, protecting water and the environment. That is a completely different set of values,” she said.
The Conservation Easement Incentive has helped Montgomery County Lands Trust to preserve 10 parcels, totaling 534 acres in Montgomery County alone, or “over $3 million in donated value,” said Dulcie Flaharty, executive director of the trust.
More broadly, more than 83,000 acres have been preserved in Gerlach’s district, “well over 40 percent” of the more than 200,000 acres which have been preserved throughout southeast Pennsylvania, said Morrison.
Nationally, the Land Trust Alliance estimates the incentive has increased the amount of land preserved by one-third — “over one million acres a year,” Flaharty said.
“With public funding diminishing and foundation grants harder to find, the Conservation Easement Incentive is a wonderful tool we need to keep in our tool box,” she said.
But the incentive is set to expire at the end of the year and the conservation groups are throwing their support behind Gerlach’s efforts to make the tax break permanent.
Gerlach said he has already gathered 270 co-sponsors as part of the bipartisan effort.
“This is before the House Ways and Means Committee, because it’s a tax bill, and I’m told that of all the bills that are before the House Ways and Means Committee at present, this has more co-sponsors than any other bill,” Gerlach said.
“It shows you that really good policy that benefits a really diverse community really bridges partisan boundaries,” said Flaharty, who noted that the weather and Phillies’ winning streak were all conspiring to make a perfect day.
But while the scenery was verdant and the blueberries sweet, there were some dollar-driven truths to consider as well.
Gerlach said while the House Bill — and a similar bill now moving through the Senate — has popular support, it is a tough budget year and the incentive costs the U.S. Treasury about $115 million a year in uncollected revenue.
“So we’re working hard to identify the ‘pay-for,’ what will pay for that loss in revenue,” Gerlach said.
There are numbers on the other side of that equation to take into consideration as well.
Evans-Stanton referred to a study released last year that concluded that open space in the five-county Philadelphia metro region adds $16.3 billion to the region’s home values; avoids $1.3 billion in health-related costs and saves $130 million per year in water treatment and flood control costs.
This last was of particular interest to Bill Covaleski, brewmaster and president of Victory Brewing Co. in Downingtown.
“When you have a product that is comprised of 90 percent water, you tend to pay attention to water,” said Covaleski.
The ability of open space to protect the headwaters of Brandywine Creek, on which his business depends, is important enough that his company is now donating a portion of the proceeds from its Headwaters Ale, to preserving both those lands and others of equal importance in the states Victory beer is sold.
“Clean water is good for business,” Covaleski said.
Gerlach said he remains confident both the House and Senate bills can be passed given their support.
“You only need 218 votes to get a bill passed in the House and with 270 co-sponsors, the odds are pretty good if we can get the bill to the floor, it’s going to pass,” he said.
Nevertheless, the advocates were taking no chances and decided to give Gerlach an added incentive to push the incentive bill — a fresh-baked blueberry pie.
And after Gerlach joined Hawthorne in picking some blueberries from the farmer’s carefully tended patch, Gerlach easily surmised that there were more where that came from.