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Saving Our Land, A Grandchild's Dream

By Jessica Schley

Growing Up

As a child, I thought I would someday take over my grandmother’s horse and cattle ranch. While some little girls grow up wanting to be schoolteachers or the President, I wanted to be my grandmother.  She was an airplane pilot, a cattle rancher, a mother, a hay farmer, and a horse trainer. She met Amelia Earhart once, and they chatted about what it was like to be a woman pilot. She is 97 now, and still tells us when to worm the horses and put salt licks out for the cows. Our family ranch is in Santa Barbara County, California.  When I was 10, I found out that my dream would not become a reality. Because of development pressures, disagreements among family members, and poor estate planning, our wonderful ranch will be sold when my grandmother, our matriarch, passes. I began to scheme about how to keep the ranch in the family, but to no avail. Fifteen years later, a young adult with a college education, I’m still trying to save the ranch and carry out my childhood dream. In trying to do so, I have found out that there are thousands of other families in my family’s shoes, all across this beautiful country.

Perhaps what I am really supposed to do with my life is help them save their ranches, even if I am not able to save my own.

The Problem

The next generation of the farm and ranch community is facing enormously high estate and property taxes, development pressure, and urbanization of the American culture. For the first time in the fifteen generations in America, farmers cannot pass their pitchforks and their land down to their sons and daughters. When they try, they often face such high taxes based on inflated development values, that heirs must sell the land in order to pay the tax. Much has been written and said about this dilemma, and now, something is going to be done.

Getting Involved

This past spring, I worked as an intern for the Land Trust Alliance (LTA) in Washington D.C. LTA and ELCR collaborated to promote legislation in Congress this year that would make the tax incentive for conservation easements permanent. We need the horse community’s help to support the Conservation Easement Incentive Act (H.R. 1831) in the House, and the Rural Heritage Conservation Extension Act (S. 812) in the Senate. Making the incentive  permanent will allow estate planners and families to make lasting decisions without the pressure of an artificial deadline, and easing the headaches that accompany tax code adjustments in the estate planning process. I wish my family had known about and used these tax incentives decades ago. Knowledge is power, and communicating and planning with family members is the key to saving your cherished land for future generations.

The key point is that the easement incentive enables horse farms, ranches, equestrian centers and moderateincome landowners to get a significant tax benefit for donating a conservation easement on their land. This incentive has helped land trusts work with willing landowners to conserve about a million acres a year since 2006.

Helpful Tools

Conservation easements allow private landowners to permanently retire development rights in order to protect significant natural resources and cherished family lands. This legal tool has aided thousands of landowners and allowed them to keep their land in production. Used in conjunction with estate planning, conservation easements can be an additional aide in helping heirs afford to continue their family farm and ranching traditions.

By removing the development values from the land, a conservation easement may reduce the assessed value of a property for estate tax purposes, and possibly for property taxes as well. In addition to this built-in benefit, the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997 created what’s known as the “2031(c) benefit” allowing owners of land under easement to take an additional estate tax exemption of up to $500,000. Another tool is the enhanced federal income tax deduction for conservation easement donations.

Open space is integral to horse owners and breeders, no matter their discipline. If we as horse people work together with groups such as ELCR, American Farmland Trust and the Land Trust Alliance, we can save farms, pastures and trails. One might think that the horse community is losing the battle against development and urbanization, but that does not have to be the case. We have the tools available to us and a growing number of individuals and organizations interested in helping.

Here’s to hoping that your own 10- year-old grandchild will have not only the desire, but also the opportunity, to continue your family’s ranching or farming tradition.

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