A Passion for Protecting Farmland
Ernie Averett co-founded the Tar River Land Conservancy in 2000, and in less than eight years the organization has come to hold 141 separate easements encompassing 15,000 acres of farmland in an eight-county area in northern North Carolina. That’s 15,000 acres that will remain in crops, pasture, timber, and native grasses long into the future.
Averett, the seventh generation of his family to farm their land, is very persuasive and committed when it comes to land preservation. Recently, he testified before Congress on behalf of AFT to urge members of Congress to increase funding for the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program (FRPP) and other conservation programs. FRPP matches funding from state and local governments, conservation organizations and private sources to help preserve agricultural land.
“The constant drumbeat of urban sprawl trumps all other considerations in terms of my concerns,” says Averett. “FRPP funding is $97 million nationwide, a negligible amount in terms of the federal budget—lost in the rounding. As we look at American farms and green space we have to ask ourselves, ‘Is this land that in 10 to 30 years, in a comparative sense to other spending endeavors, deserving of attention?’ If it is, then we have to do something now because in 10 to 15 years it won’t matter if you don’t fund it.”
Averett’s hardly talking about handouts here. Conservation easements allow landowners to receive some compensation now (via the FRPP and other funding) for foregoing the windfall that might be generated by selling the land for development. Even so, “the landowner is still probably donating two-thirds of the value anyway,” he says.
Averett’s Flatwood Farms recently completed permanent easements on 602 acres of their farm. Most of the preserved acres are managed pine forest, but 72 acres consist of hardwoods like oak, beech and hickory that may have never been cut over—certainly not in the nearly 200 years his family has been here. The easements are held by the Conservation Trust of North Carolina. Money from the federal FRPP was matched by funds from the North Carolina Clean Water Management Trust Fund.
When broaching the subject of permanent conservation easements with other landowners, Averett often finds himself correcting misconceptions about the documents. An easement can be as tailored to the landowner and the land as need be. In Averett’s case, his managed pine forests can be selectively cut, but buffers around ponds and streams cannot.
Landowners can also exempt small portions of their land from easements for future housing—particularly in anticipation of housing needed by additional family members. “People think there is more rigidity than really exists in this process.”
The Tar River Land Conservancy, which now has 600 individual and corporate members, “has succeeded beyond my expectations,” he says.
But there is still plenty more that can be done, not the least of which is secure more financial commitment from the federal government, according to Averett. Likewise, lawmakers could help those entering conservation easements to get more value from the resulting tax deduction by extending the period during which those deductions can be taken.
The value of a conservation easement above and beyond what a landowner is paid is essentially a tax-deductible donation. But often these donations amount to hundreds of thousands, or even more than a million, dollars. As it is, taxpayers can only deduct an amount that doesn’t exceed their adjusted gross income in a given year, and they can only deduct the value of the donation for up to five years.
That limited time period means many of those entering conservation easements can’t deduct the entire value of their donation, according to Averett. “Literally hundreds of thousands of dollars go away unused.” He and others are pushing to make permanent a 15-year deduction period for those eligible to do so.
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