by Katie Campbell, Vero Beach Press Journal Staff Writer
Sunday, March 27, 2004
|.Here’s the choice: Sprawling pastures with cattle grazing in the distance or sprawling subdivisions with houses sprouting on the horizon.
“People are finally figuring out the farms and ranches are the best bet we have for preserving Florida,” said John Tallent, director of land management for the agricultural business Lykes Bros. Inc, in Highlands and Glades counties.
Tallent spoke to a group of farmers, Realtors, bankers, bureaucrats, environmentalists and elected officials in the 2004 Land Preservation Symposium organized by the Indian River Land Trust, a privately funded, not-for-profit organization working to protect Indian River County’s rural land.
For most of the past 10 years, the Land Trust has worked to purchase and restore the McKee Botanical Gardens, a $9.5 million project. Now the Trust is refocusing its efforts on acquiring — by purchase or donation — development rights of area landowers through conservation easements, which limit development of their land, yet still allow certain agricultural or recreational uses.
A conservation easement allows a farmer to still retain the right to use his land and lowers how much he pays in estate, income and property taxes, said Michael O’Haire, a Vero Beach real estate tax attoryney and Land Trust member, who spoke at the symposium.
Advantages of conservation easements:
The landowner still owns the property
and can continue to live on it, sell it, or
will it to heirs.
An easement can significantly lower
estate, income and property taxes.
Easements can be written to meet the
needs of the landowner.
Easements are permanent.
To discuss establishing a conservation
easement, call the Indian River Land Trust
at (772) 794-0701.
“The tax benefits can be an incentive, but tax reasons shouldn’t drive anyone’s decision to put their land into an easement”, O’Haire said.
But monetary incentive should figure into the equation, argued Tallent, who put a large chunk of his family’s land near Fisheating Creek, southwest of Okeechobee, into a conservation easement.
“By limiting your rights to develop, you are liquidating most of the value of your land,” Tallent said.
The worry is that once a farmer sells the rights to develop, it’ll be difficult if not impossible to ever mortgage or sell the land. Then if the price of beef or citrus falls and the farmer needs money, there are no options, Tallent said.
“If you’re going to do this, you really need to think about it because this is one of the potential downsides,” Tallent said. “But, I do think conservation is a great tool. It’s not free money though. There are strings attached to it and there are down sides.”
Toward the end of his speech, an audience member called out, “So what’s the up side of this?”
Tallent relented that there are positives. “You have the potential on a conservation easement to (get paid for) between 50 and 65 percent of the market value of your property and still own the property and be able to do what you’ve been doing,” he said.
That’s the most enticing part for Louis Schacht, the owner-manager of Schacht Groves, a small citrus business that his family has owned since 1950.
“If it means you can get paid to do something you’re already doing and take on a little more responsibility, it’s a win-win,” he said.
Schacht said he’s never sought out conservation easement as an option, but he sees it as a potential economic opportunity in a time when growing citrus hasn’t been overly lucrative. “It’s a unique option that appeals to both sides, agriculture and government, but it depends on your specific situation.”