GOP alternative takes easement funds for roads

A group of Republican lawmakers want to eliminate Colorado’s conservation easement tax credit to funnel roughly $100 million a year into highway improvements.

Conservation easements are used to protect private land of historic or environmental importance.

House Minority Leader Mike May, R-Parker, and Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch, said Thursday their ballot measure to suspend the credit is a sensible way to avoid levying new fees on Colorado drivers and repair the state’s roads.

The tax credit allows a landowner who donates land protected by an easement to a qualifying land trust to claim a credit worth half the land’s appraised value up to $375,000.

Harvey cited a series of landowners who abused the tax credit earlier this decade as the reason for suspending the credit.

May and Harvey’s forthcoming ballot measure is the latest highway-funding alternative Republicans have floated in reaction to a Democratic proposal to hike auto fees to underwrite road improvements.

Rob Bleiberg, director of the Mesa Land Trust, said suspending the tax credit would seriously disrupt efforts to preserve local land through easements.

“The properties that add so much to our quality of life, that define our community,” Bleiberg said, “those natural lands have been conserved through the use of the tax credit.”

Bleiberg said the roughly 50,000 acres the Mesa Land Trust has preserved in Mesa County includes orchards in Palisade, stretches of the shoreline of the Colorado and Gunnison rivers, and winter range for elk on Glade Park.

Bleiberg said a federal tax deduction exists for those interested in preserving their land, but it would only provide an incentive for the wealthiest of Coloradans and not “land-rich, cash-poor landowners.”

Jay Van Loan, a Glade Park cattle rancher who protected 1,865 acres of his ranch with an easement in 2006, said the tax credit “made quite a difference” in his decision to formally preserve his land.

“That’s going to really put a damper on the conservation easement program,” he said of the ballot measure.

John Cox, a Palisade peach grower whose family has easements on 55 acres of his land along Interstate 70 and on East Orchard Mesa, said his family probably would not have gone through with the easements were it not for the tax credit.

Cox said the tax credits provided seed money for his two sons to get into farming.

Reps. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, and Laura Bradford, R-Collbran, said they wanted to learn more about May’s proposal before taking a stance.

Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction, could not be reached for comment Thursday afternoon.

If the General Assembly endorses May and Harvey’s ballot measure, it could appear on the ballot in November.


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