Mass. Town Encourages Farmers to Save Land

5/21/2011 10:00 AM

Guy Steucek

Massachusetts Correspondent

DRACUT, Mass. — The spirit of Marjorie Dunlap, who would have been 100 this spring, lives on in land preservation in Dracut.

So much so that the town’s recently held fourth Landowners’ Forum, “Saving the Family Land: Now is the Time,” was dedicated to her memory.

In the early 1980s, after losing her husband, Bert, who had run their small dairy farm since 1950, Dunlap was worried about hefty property taxes, as well as the threat of ultimate development. She and Bert, both naturalists, loved their land — about 100 acres of fields, pastures, wetlands and woodlands — a typical New England farm. So she set out to preserve it.

Dunlap was dismayed by early rejection. The chairman of the Dracut Conservation Commission told her flatly that “it was too late to conserve land in Dracut,” a town then experiencing extensive development of farmland. Then the Massachusetts Department of Food and Agriculture assessed the land as too small, with too much woodland and wetland to be competitive in their new Agricultural Preservation Restriction (APR) program. Groups such as Mass Audubon also deemed the property too small, isolated, and not special enough for them to protect.

Dunlap finally enlisted the help of a local dairy farmer and town selectman, Warren Shaw, and in 1983 had a conservation restriction placed on the property. She retained ownership, with the restriction held jointly with the Dracut Conservation Commission and the state of Massachusetts.

Because there was no ready source of funds, and because she so desired to see the land protected, she simply gave the development rights to the town of Dracut. In the years following her death in 1997, several Boy Scouts got their Eagle badges making trails through the woods. The “Dunlap Sanctuary,” a wooded part of the Dunlap Farm, became a well-loved local destination for casual hikers and nature lovers.

In 2000, the Massachusetts legislature passed the Community Preservation Act (CPA), allowing communities to levy a 1 to 3 percent property tax to develop a fund for the preservation of open space, historic sites, affordable housing and recreation, a fund matched by real estate transaction fees. Community preservation committees in these towns oversee negotiations leading to the use of these funds, although the final allocation must be approved by town meeting.

The Community Preservation Committee of Dracut sponsored the town’s recent Landowners’ Forum, which was organized and chaired by Dunlap’s daughter, Helen Dunlap, who now lives on and works the family farm.

The forum aimed to inform landowners of their options for land preservation, to educate them on the monetary benefits, — whether sources of funding or tax benefits — and to encourage especially farmers to preserve their land for the future.

“Beyond all the other benefits of preserved open space, we just don’t know what the future may bring, and Dracut residents may one day need your land to grow crops and raise livestock,” Helen Dunlap said.

Why is now the time to preserve land? In this tough economy, the CPA program in Dracut is threatened with repeal at the next town meeting. And, the significant federal tax benefits for farmers who preserve their land, in place since 1996, are scheduled to expire at the end of this year.

Warren Shaw spoke of how Marjorie Dunlap’s single act of preserving her land changed the mentality of Dracut and initiated a land preservation movement in this seemingly unlikely blue collar town.

“Because of Marjorie Dunlap, we discovered that not every farm has to end up as a subdivision,” Shaw said.

Another farm located close to the center of town was then transformed, with the help of state funds, into Veteran’s Memorial Park, fulfilling a great need for recreational space in town.

“Without her example, I doubt that White Gate Farm (an adjacent property owned by John Ogonowski, the pilot of Flight 11 which was hijacked and flown into the World Trade Center on 9/11) would exist today,” Shaw said. “Certainly the town would not have put up $700,000 and the state $1.2 million for its development rights had it not been for Marjorie Dunlap.”

He also maintained that the actual approval of the CPA program was part of Marjorie Dunlap’s legacy.

“Think of all the properties the town has preserved with CPA funds,” Shaw said, citing three farms and a fourth recently developed as another recreational field. “These probably would not be but for the track record set by Marjorie Dunlap.”

“Conservation restrictions are permanent agreements between a private landowner and an agency that holds the restrictions,” said Chris Rodstrom of The Trustees of Reservations, which holds conservation restrictions on 145 properties across Massachusetts, protecting 20,000 acres. “The restrictions stay with the property; they protect conservation values that benefit the public.”

The landowner usually retains ownership. “Conservation restrictions are more flexible than sales and donations of property for conservation; these are a terrific option to tailor restrictions to specific needs of landowners,” said Rodstrom.

The Massachusetts Agricultural Preservation Restriction Program (APR), initiated in 1979 as the first in the nation, today holds restrictions on 66,000 acres. According to Chris Chisholm, field representative for MA APR, the APR restrictions are not as flexible at those held by The Trustees of Reservations. The land must be high-quality farmland, determined primarily by soils, and it must have been in active agriculture for at least two tax years.

“There is a rolling application process and at present the queue may be a year and half long for funding,” Chisholm said.

The maximum APR can pay is $10,000 per acre. But the town can add to the payment for development rights, he said.

“Dracut has an unusual amount of APR land,” Chisholm said, with five parcels totaling 300 acres. More than half of the towns in Massachusetts have no APR parcels.

Marjorie Dunlap’s donation of the development rights of her farm to the town gave subsequent conservation projects such as APR higher funding priorities.

Glen Edwards, assistant town manager, who outlined the CPA process, said, “There are urgent issues that the town funds, like schools, police, firefighters, roads. Then there are things that are on the non-urgent list, such as preserving property. When it comes to land preservation, we keep kicking the can down the road until opportunities are lost because of a family loss or illness.

“There (is) $5 million available in the town CPA open space fund to purchase development rights,” he said. “Now is the time for you to exercise your decision and not be forced into a family-driven decision.”

Edwards also stressed that before land can be preserved using CPA funds, it must be appraised, and reimbursement for development rights cannot exceed the appraised value.

The difference between the amount landowners could receive from their land if it were to be developed and the value of that land as conservation land is called the Qualified Charitable Contribution (QCC), said Richard Dionne, CPA for Anstiss & Co., CPAs of Lowell.

“The ability to deduct a QCC over extended periods and at higher annual amounts in your federal taxes will expire on Dec. 31, 2011,” Dionne said. “The charitable deduction on an annual basis will revert from 50 percent to 30 percent (100 percent to 30 percent for farmers) of adjusted income. Also the 15-year carryover will revert back to the five-year carryover period. Therefore, any contribution deduction not used after five years will be lost.”

Clearly the tax ramifications of selling or donating development rights are significant and are likely to change for the worse unless Congress extends the benefits.

Ken Lania, an engineer on the Dracut CP committee, presented an analysis of the Dunlap Farm to illustrate what the area would look like with suburban development.

“The Dunlap Farm is full of resource areas, such as streams, wetlands and vernal pools, really a nightmare for a developer,” he said.

There are regulations restricting development adjacent to resource areas that would limit potential development of 100 acres to only 14 building lots, which nonetheless could be located were land is currently farmed and where folks from town now seek passive recreation.

Lania emphasized that appraisals of land are decreasing because of tightening environmental regulations, and that landowners would do well to get their farms appraised soon, prior to initiating preservation negotiations.

Looking over her mother’s records, Helen Dunlap noted that by implementing conservation deed restrictions on the property, her mother realized less than 10 percent of the appraised value for the property in federal tax relief. Today, she could have taken advantage of CPA funds and more favorable tax laws.

“Today you could do a lot better than Marjorie did,” Dunlap said.

Editor’s Note: Marjorie Dunlap is the author’s mother-in-law.

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