Sunday, October 20, 2013

What is this "Place" About?

View into Bentley Park from BGE Easement
off of Railroad Ave. in Towson

It's a thicket, at least it was until last Saturday, a half-acre lot in Historic East Towson now known as Adelaide Bentley Park.  NeighborSpace purchased the property in 2009 to protect some green space for a community surrounded by urban uses on all sides, including Stanley Black and Decker's parking lot.

But what's the place about?  This question was put to me yesterday by one of 14 men from the Jones Falls Ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who spent the morning helping us to begin the process of creating a park on the site.  Every executive director loves a question like this because it gives you a chance to recite your elevator speech.  I was prepared with mine.

"It's about improving the livability of communities with open space," I said, "because it's in very short supply in this part of the County. Towson is a first-tier suburb of Baltimore City, among the first areas where former City dwellers relocated  in the housing boom that followed the Second World War. There were no rules in place then requiring developers to set aside open space," I explained.

The young man didn't run away, so I went on: "Then in 1967, the County created a growth line (the URDL), confining future population growth to most of the same places, like Towson, that grew tremendously after WWII.  So, these 2 historical events are a 'double whammy' when it comes to livability and NeighborSpace tries to change that by protecting open space for small neighborhood parks, which is what is planned here, as well as for trails and environmental uses." (For a short video about all of this that is much more interesting than anything I might say, click here).

As I've reflected on my response, I've decided it really wasn't very good.  I didn't talk about the "place." Gertrude Stein, upon re-visiting the developed Oakland, CA community in adulthood that had replaced the agrarian community she experienced in her childhood, said of it that "there is no there there." Translation: It lacks culture, soul, life, and identity.

That's not true of Bentley Park. First, and foremost, it's recently named after Adelaide Bentley, a long-time resident of East Towson and a strong community leader who is credited with keeping developers from buying up homes and destroying this tightly knit and, largely, African-American neighborhood.

Adelaide Bentley receiving park dedication citation on July 20, 2013
(Photo credit - Patuxent Publications)
The property abuts a 33 acre site owned by Stanley Black and Decker, a Fortune 500 company with a century of power tool production experience and what the Sun has called "a storied history in the area."  This campus serves as the company's "Construction and Do It Yourself" headquarters, where many new products are developed.  The oldest building there dates to 1917, when the company obtained its first patent for a power tool.  It turns out that Mrs. Bentley worked there for 15 years.

Many other people have contributed to the soul of this place. Nancy Goldring,  Adelaide Bentley's granddaughter, lives behind the park and has been our eyes and ears on it for years. She's also been a generous supporter of NeighborSpace during that same span of time.

Marsha McLaughlin, John Alexander, John Murphy and Eric Rockel are four NeighborSpace board members who have all shaped the park in their own ways.  Marsha, a landscape architect who has more than her share of obligations in her day-job as head of Planning in Howard County, has been instrumental in organizing the clean-up of the site and in rekindling discussions about its future design. Eric played a large role in the parcel's acquisition, and along with Councilman David Marks, deserves credit for dedicating the park to Mrs. Bentley. Among many other things, John Alexander and John Murphy showed up with chain saws and other equipment to work side-by-side with the men from the Jones Falls Ward yesterday.

Larry Simmons, a special assistant to the County Executive, was our connection to the 14 men from the Jones Falls Ward and secured a County DPW dumpster for the cleanup. Linda Foy from BGE gave us permission to park the dumpster on BGE's easement, which made our work yesterday A LOT easier.

Special Assistant Larry Simmons and NeighborSpace Board Member John Alexander
on the edge of Bentley Park last Saturday.

Last, but most definitely, not least, are the 14 men from the Jones Falls Ward of the Church of Latter-day Saints, who descended on the site and transformed it incredibly in the matter of a few hours.  I don't have all their names, but they were led by Brent Petty, a Johns Hopkins physician by day (last on the right in photo), and by Dave Rueckerte (4th from right wearing the "Army" shirt).

The great men from the Jones Falls Ward,
Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints

With their gift of time, effort and enthusiasm, they have left an idelible footprint on the place that is Bentley Park and bouyed us incredibly to take the next steps in creating a park for the Historic East Towson Community.


A thicket no more, thanks to the men shown above
(compare to the first picture in this post)













Thursday, October 3, 2013

Another Take on What is Truly "Transformational"

Much has been written about the transformational power of conserved land.  Comparatively little of this writing focuses on urban sites. We want to change that, given our focus on conserving land within Baltimore County’s inner suburbs, and to start with the story of our Gwynn Oak Ave. Site in Woodlawn.




Our acquisition of this small parcel, boasting nothing more than a quarter-acre of grass and two apple trees in 2009, led community members to form the Greystone Community Association, uniting two neighborhoods that surround the site: Broadacres and Carlynn Heights. The Association’s leadership then went on to do great things for the newly united neighborhoods.  They successfully sought grant funding from the Baltimore Community Foundation to erect gateway signage on the site and they began a series of community programs there, uniting people of different races, ages and interests.  National Night Out has been celebrated on the site with outdoor movies, and flea and farmer’s markets have been held, along with other community events. In the process, an otherwise nondescript plot of land has become a community focal point, a collective gathering place where residents become neighbors and neighbors build and strengthen their bonds.  For this reason, we choose to launch our Inaugural Membership Campaign with this video salute to the Greystone Community Association for its work in programming our Gwynn Oak Ave. Site. If you are moved by the truly transformational power of land conservation shown here, we hope you'll show your support for it by joining NeighborSpace today.





Sunday, May 19, 2013

8 Facts about the Open Space Waiver Fee Matters Currently before the County Council

The County Council is currently considering one bill and two resolutions regarding open space waiver fees that developers pay when they are unable to provide the open space required by the County Code.  Bill 31-13 changes the percentage of the fees coming to NeighborSpace from “up to 10 percent,”  language found in Section 32-6-108 of the County Code currently, to “15 percent” and for the first time establishes a cycle for reviewing the fees (4 years).  Resolution 43-13 establishes a new fee schedule and Resolution 44-13 asks the Planning Board to study the matter, addressing many of the problems enumerated below and requiring that recommendations be submitted to the Council by October 1.  Here are 8 facts I want to share with you about this situation:

1. Open space and livability are huge problems within the URDL, where 90% of Baltimore County’s population lives on 1/3 of the total land area. For a short account of the problems and their origins, watch this brief video.
2. Absent any context, the proposed fee reductions look draconian.

3. Developers pay no impact fees or excise taxes for things like roads and schools in Baltimore County.  The fees they currently pay for open space, however, are higher than any development fees charged by other metropolitan Baltimore jurisdictions (my research) and higher than fees charged for open space alone (County research) in urban residential zones. 

4. The current rates for open space waiver fees date to 2006.  Pressed for an explanation about the methodology for setting these fees, the County could provide none.

5. Legislation passed in 2009 and  governing the vesting of development plans gave any approved projects in the pipeline on or before August 17, 2009 four years to vest (i.e. record a plat and pay the waiver fee) or lose  development approval. Few development projects went forward during the recession; so, August 17, 2013 is a deadline that looms large for many developers doing business in the County – hence, the current press for changes to the fees.

6. The problems with current laws requiring a developer to set aside open space or pay a fee in lieu thereof are much bigger than simply the amount of the fee and what portion of it comes to NeighborSpace. It can be effectively argued that  current law and policy:
  •      Do not Address Pressing Open Space Needs within the URDL Effectively: The current policy requires open space to be provided on a development site. If a developer could pay a fee that would allow the Department of Recreation and Parks or NeighborSpace to create open space on another local site, pressing community open space needs nearby might also be addressed. NeighborSpace’s soon-to-be-released Strategic Conservation Plan for land within the URDL could aid this evaluation.
  •     Are not Sufficiently Fair or Predictable:  The amount of the fee should be tied to a justifiable methodology that reflects the true cost of the open space that must be provided as a result of the development project. The current proposal, which is the basis for the fees in Resolution 43-13, to base the fee solely on the average assessed value of raw land does not account for improvements required by the Local Open Space Manual, such as boundary markers, clearing, grading, and replanting in accordance with the Landscape Manual, as well as providing both vehicular and pedestrian access. A fee based on 130% of the cost of raw land might be a closer approximation of the revenues needed to provide the open space required. In addition, the fee schedule should be revisited more regularly than every four years, as proposed in Bill 31-13.   The market that tanked in 2007 is rebounding.  Other counties revisit fees regularly and base them on average SDAT residential land reassessments plus a construction cost index, such as the 20-City Annual National Average Construction Cost Index from The Engineering New-Record (which Anne Arundel County uses to adjust its fees annually).
  •      Lack Transparency about the Development Fees and the Methodology for Setting Them:  Every other metro county I reviewed, with the exception of Carroll, publishes its current fees on the county website.  Arguably, the methodology and process for establishing the fees should also be published.
  •     May not be the Most Effective Means of Ensuring Quality Open Space:  NeighborSpace has offered to work with the County and with developers to review how effective the current laws and policies are in creating meaningful open space.  Resources will always be limited, so we need to strive to create open space that achieves multiple goals – protecting our environment and enhancing the livability and desirability of our communities.  Achieving these goals will make Baltimore County more attractive for continuing private sector investment and will support the tax base that is needed for other public services.
  •      Do not Incentivize Redevelopment within Community Enhancement Areas (CEAs):  As development inside the URDL continues and density increases we may need additional incentives for redevelopment projects in CEAs, those areas designated in the Master Plan for redevelopment and accommodation of population growth.  Higher density and mixed-use developments in CEAs will require a different approach to open space requirements, with less emphasis on size and more on usability and amenities.

7. Members of the NeighborSpace Board and I discussed the above concerns with County officials and with developers and had hoped that they could be addressed in legislation that would be approved this summer.  Unfortunately, there are just too many problems to be investigated and questions to be decided for that to be a realistic timeframe for resolution.

8. For these reasons, NeighborSpace testified in support of Resolution 44-13, introduced by Councilmembers Quirk, Marks, Almond, & Olszewski last Tuesday and asking the Planning Board to study these issues. I am hopeful that NeighborSpace will be able to share the foregoing concerns with the Planning Board in the coming months and welcome your feedback on the issues as I have described them here.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Plans, Precepts, Policies, and People in Baltimore County Land Conservation Since 1960


“If you do not know how to ask the right questions, you discover nothing.” William Edward Deming, American Business Philosopher and Consultant

Several seminal events have taken place recently that impact land conservation in Baltimore County. Not all affect NeighborSpace directly, but they are, nonetheless, noteworthy. As I reflected on them, they seemed so disparate, which intrigued the problem solver in me who is, at once, owing to various training, categorical, detail-oriented, and visual. What started as a simple blog post to relay interesting news, ended up as a 12 hour extravaganza exploring the plans, precepts, policies and people that have shaped land use and conservation in Baltimore County for over 50 years – a veritable rabbit hole to Wonderland – but, nonetheless, an experience that led to greater understanding and appreciation of those who have laid a foundation for the next generation of work that must be done.

Using a timeline as an organizing element, I have begun to chronicle the precepts (laws), policies and people (organizations) that have evolved to make the landscape that we all know as Baltimore County look as it does today. This is by no means a finished product and I welcome suggestions for changing what can only be called an initial draft. As a rough drawing, the timeline succeeds in giving us some information we might not have gleaned from prose alone. One cannot help but notice a shift in concern in the last 10 years, for example, from issues related to protecting rural lands to those concerned with the thoughtful redevelopment (and infill) of more urban areas. Both urban and rural conservation efforts are still simultaneously important, but if our timeline has a story to tell, it is that we who are concerned with infill and redevelopment in the 200 square miles of land that lies within the URDL should take a page from our forbearers on the rural side and approach our conservation tasks thoughtfully. And no organization has been more thoughtful in approaching land conservation in Baltimore County than the Valleys Planning Council (VPC), which dates to 1962 and is where I originally wanted to begin this post.

If you’ve witnessed the timeline, you know that VPC just turned the corner on 50 years of age in 2012, and, in honor of that auspicious milestone, its leaders commissioned a movie about the plan that was the genesis of the organization. (There was a public screening of the movie at MICA in February that I attended and we hope to arrange another showing for NeighborSpace members shortly). The plan that drives the movie, known as the Plan for the Valleys, dates to 1963 and was authored by landscape architect Ian McHarg, who taught at the University of Pennsylvania and was a principal at the firm of Wallace McHarg Associates in Philadelphia. It is one of several chapters in a larger title called Design with Nature, a text that has been required reading for students of planning and landscape architecture across the country since the late 1960s. And, because of the foresight and fortitude of the members of the Valleys Planning Council, the McHarg plan was implemented, the Greenspring and Worthington Valleys were protected, and the Urban Rural Demarcation Line (URDL) was enacted with the result that, today, 90 percent of the County’s 807,000 residents live below the URDL on 1/3 of the County’s land area and roughly 25 percent of the land beyond the URDL is protected with conservation easements.

There are those who might say that the foregoing results are hardly ideal given the many shortcomings we have outlined in earlier posts about walkability, underutilized impervious surface, and the lack of open space in communities within the URDL. True. But what few people know is that there are rich aquifers underlying much of the land within the valleys and that they feed the reservoirs (e.g. Pretty Boy and Loch Raven) that provide much of our drinking water.  If they were densely developed, the aquifers and our drinking water sources would suffer, a result  arguably more unpalatable then the other challenges we face.

Moving on, I want to note that, as is the case in every General Assembly Session, Program Open Space (POS), which dates to 1969, and its sister programs (Rural Legacy, MALPF)  are once again threatened with having some their funds diverted to other uses. If you don’t know, POS is what the State uses to pay for parks and what county governments use to augment local funding for acquiring and enhancing park facilities.  It’s also the reason that people complain that Maryland’s real estate closing costs are so high – POS is funded from a modest tax on our closing costs. But that resulted for many years (at least until 2002) in Maryland conserving as much land as it developed annually, a claim that few states could ever make and an especially important achievement for the 5th most densely populated state in the country.  Please see the details of this year’s attempts to make an end-run around one of the soundest land conservation ideas there has ever been, and what you can do to help by clicking here.  As we note in the timeline, counties are required to update their plans for spending POS funding every six years, and we are in one of those years.  Please click here to comment on Baltimore County’s plans by March 31.

Another element of our timeline that is deserving of attention currently is the Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act of 2012, also known as “the septics bill.” It requires counties to establish development tiers indicating where major and minor subdivisions will be located and what type of sewerage will serve them according to a framework established in State law.  There are few surprises in Baltimore County’s response to this mandate, made public last December.  Most growth is planned on public sewerage within the URDL, much of it through redevelopment  in areas called Community Enhancement Areas, which we have alluded to on many prior occasions.

What seems to be lacking from these and other plans the County has put forth for the URDL are specifics on conservation of open space, which is well documented as being in very short supply and key to the success of any redevelopment effort.  That’s where we hope to make a contribution. Much like the citizens who turned to Ian McHarg in the 1960s for help in crafting a conservation plan, we are turning to the National Park Service’s Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance Program and our constituents to develop a plan for conserving open space for a variety of social, economic and environmental uses within the URDL. We are fortunate indeed to have strong support for this effort, including, but not limited to, a grant of $1,000 from  the Maryland Environmental Trust and the Janice Hollmann Grant Fund, a one-year grant of technical support from the National Park Service, and, most recently, a $5,000 grant from the Rauch Foundation. A final meeting of our stakeholder group to engage in the promised “pairwise comparison” of the goals, objectives, and criteria we developed together will be announced shortly.  If you are interested in participating, please let us know by filling out the form available here.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Why tensions are at a fever pitch over proposals targeting open spaces (e.g. parks) within Baltimore County for development and what YOU can do about it.


A park targeted for a new fire house. Another park targeted for a new school.  If public reaction to these recent headlines and their related stories about the possible development of existing park land is, in any way, a barometer of tension over the use of scarce open space within Baltimore County’s growth line (aka, “the URDL”),  then “Houston” we do, indeed, have “a problem” – tensions are running at a fever pitch.  

The “problem” has its origins in the large-scale urban decentralization of housing and jobs that followed on the heels of World War II.  Across the U.S. and in Baltimore, economic prosperity, and the desire of suburban counties to enhance their tax bases, resulted in population flight from cities to new homes and communities being built in suburban areas that we now call “inner suburbs,” like those shown in the map above.  These communities, which were connected to the city by major radial roadways but relatively disconnected from one another, were then joined by the development of beltways, which also served to provide a freeway bypass of the city and to hasten our car dependency. The Baltimore Beltway was the first such highway completed as part of the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways between 1956 and 1977.

Conventional zoning applied to these new communities segregates land uses, such that there are separate areas for homes, businesses, and schools.  More often than not, the distance between these uses means that communities are unwalkable and car-dependent, an issue we have highlighted in earlier posts.  In addition, there were no rules until recently requiring developers to set aside land for public open space, leaving many of the communities within the County’s inner suburbs with no parks within a five- to ten-minute walk from home. 

As land for development became increasingly scarce within the inner suburbs, attention turned to the farmland that lay beyond them. In many areas across the country, counties were slow to act on sprawling development, with the result that large numbers of farms and natural areas were lost forever. To a large extent, Baltimore County avoided this result by creating the Urban Rural Demarcation Line (URDL), shown in the map, above, in 1967.  Beyond this growth line, no public water or sewer infrastructure can be provided, with the result that large-scale developments cannot be constructed there. Roughly one quarter of this land has been placed in conservation easements (with aid from other land trusts and often with aid of public funding) over time, protecting it from development forever.

The existence of the URDL clearly halted the spread of population beyond its boundaries, as 90 percent of the County’s 807,000 residents now live within it.  As noted above, however, the communities within the URDL boundary can hardly be called idyllic, void as they are of open space, poorly planned, and largely unwalkable. Should there be any surprise, then, that residents of these communities bristle when park land is threatened by development?

The answer, and a widely accepted one, is “No.” There is widespread agreement among experts familiar with these issues that quality public open space, among many other things, is central to the livability of inner suburbs.  In his recent book entitled, Transforming Race & Class in Suburbia, Thomas J. Vicino characterizes the County’s inner suburbs as being “at a crossroads” in terms of needed investments, like parks, that will make them more attractive places to live and work.  Architect Ellen Dunham-Jones, in her recent book, Retrofitting Suburbia, argues for transformative change to the suburban built environment, especially projects that “introduce compelling public space.”

To its credit, the County has taken a large step in the direction urged by Vicino and Dunham-Jones by targeting over 50 “Community Enhancement Areas” for redevelopment in the latest Master Plan approved by the County Council in 2010.  Shown in the map below, most of these areas are along commercial corridors and many are characterized by failing or defunct uses and acres of underperforming impervious surface. The idea is to retrofit some of this land for public parks and squares and to redevelop the 

balance into well planned, mixed-use communities, something we’ve dubbed “retrofitting subURDLia.” In this way, projected growth in the County is accommodated, some of the planning blunders of the last century are ameliorated, and, hopefully, existing open spaces (e.g. parks) are held harmless from development.

In the two years that this plan has been on the books, how many of these projects have been launched?  The answer is “not many” and the reasons are prolific.  But our case is not one of first impression.  Other jurisdictions within Maryland and outside of it are successfully redeveloping their inner suburbs and we can learn from them.  To that end, NeighborSpace is sponsoring “Retrofitting SubURDLia,” a benefit breakfast, on Thursday, January 10, 2013 form 7:30 to 9:30 AM at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Timonium, where State Planning Secretary, Rich Hall, and ULI Fellow, Ed McMahon, will offer perspectives on how we can channel development to our CEAs and improve the livability of the communities within the URDL that so many of us call home.  More information about the event and reservations can be found on our home page at www.neighborspacebaltimorecounty.org. Questions may be directed to Barbara Hopkins, Executive Director, at 443-610-8601 or at barbara@neighborspacebaltimorecounty.org















Sunday, August 19, 2012


How do we improve communities by protecting land?

This is a question that NeighborSpace has been attempting to answer as we embark on developing a first-of-its-kind strategic conservation plan.  The development of the plan is driven by standards and practices that all land trusts affiliated with the national Land Trust Alliance(LTA) are required to follow as guiding principles.  It’s also fueled by some very practical considerations:  According to LTA, land trusts that focus on strategic priorities and create conservation visions typically raise more funds and protect more land more efficiently than those who jump at any opportunity without an overarching plan.

The plan is considered to be the first of its kind because there is really no model for land conservation planning in first-tier suburbs (like the area within the URDL in Baltimore County) in the same way that there are models for planning in more rural areas.  This is among the reasons that the National Park Service offered to work with NeighborSpace on the development of such a plan, so that a model could be developed and disseminated for use by conservation organizations like NeighborSpace in other parts of the country.

Step one in developing the plan is to define what we mean by a livable community.  (We’ll have more to say about the planning steps in future posts). Fortunately there are many prior efforts upon which to draw in developing this definition, which, in essence, provide that livability is a subset of sustainability – in particular, those attributes of sustainability that directly affect people living in a community.   Kaid Benfield, Sustainable Communities Program Director at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDS) says that a sustainable  community is a place "where use of resources and emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants are going down, not up; where the air and waterways are accessible and clean; where land is used efficiently and shared parks and public spaces are plentiful and easily visited; where people of different ages, income levels and cultural backgrounds share equally in environmental, social and cultural benefits; where many needs of daily life can be met within a 20-minute walk and all may be met within a 20-minute transit ride; where industry and economic opportunity emphasize healthy, environmentally sound practices."[1]

In other words, a sustainable community is one where social, environmental and economic demands (also known as “the three pillars of sustainability”) are balanced:  “neighborhoods sporting healthy amounts of green space and shared vegetable gardens; mass transit, biking and walking replacing the majority of automobile traffic; and mixed use communities where schools, residences and commercial spaces are near each other and are powered by solar panels, geothermal heat pumps or windmills.”[2]

As we decide what this means for land conservation within the URDL going forward, it is helpful to look backward in time at some of the land we protected earlier in our history and at the contributions those parcels have made to the sustainability of communities within the Urban Rural Demarcation Line (URDL).  In this post, we’ll travel to our Gwynn Oak Ave. site in Woodlawn.  If you drove by  there on the evening of Tuesday, August 7, you would have caught a glimpse of Don Knotts as the “Incredible Mr. Limpet,” the protagonist in a 1964 Warner Brothers film in which a mild-mannered Brooklyn bookeeper with a passion for fish magically turns into a dolphin.  The Graystone Community Association hosted this outdoor movie night in recognition of “National Night Out,” America’s night out against crime.  This nationwide campaign seeks to heighten crime and drug prevention awareness; generate support for, and participation in, local anticrime programs; strengthen neighborhood spirit and police-community partnerships; and send a message to criminals letting them know that neighborhoods are organized and fighting back.

Roughly 40 people of all ages turned out with folding chairs, blankets and tiki torches for the event, along with a contingent of officers from the Baltimore County Police Department and representatives from the Red Line, the 14. 1 mile mass transit corridor planned to extend from the Social Security complex in  Woodlawn to the Johns Hopkins Bayview Campus.  Graystone Community Association President, Jim Amos, expressed his appreciation for the 13 years he had spent in the community and urged those in attendance to get to know their neighbors.  Kerri Lastner,  past president of the association and event organizer, underscored the importance of getting together as a community “just to have fun.” Woodlawn Christian Fellowship Pastor Michele Perrera and her husband, Tom, were also on hand to share in the festivities and to provide a movie staple, fresh popcorn, to all in attendance.

In the movie, Mr. Limpet struggles for acceptance and has few passions in his life as a man, but finds great reward and happiness, with the help of his underwater friends, once transformed into a fish.   There are some parallels, here, for this very diverse community, in terms of its ability to come together in acceptance and celebration of individual differences and, thereby, to strengthen the neighborhood and to overcome the challenges targeted by “National Night Out.”

A painter’s tarp stretched between two apple trees on a quarter acre of otherwise vacant land is hardly fodder for a masterpiece – unless and until we can appreciate it in a broader context.  When it serves to bridge the all too familiar divides of race, age, socioeconomic status and religious belief and to knit diverse individuals together as a community, it becomes a magnum opus and a hallmark of sustainability.  Imagine what our inner suburbs could become if every community had a small parcel of land like the NeighborSpace site on Gwynn Oak Ave. and a community association like Graystone to manage and program it.


[1] Kaid Benfield, A Trip to Sustainaville. Switchboard, March 2011.
[2] Ibid.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Cutting Through the Jibberjabber of Land Trust Speak to Explain Important, New Tax Benefits for NeighborSpace Easement Donors

As a result of a new partnership with the Maryland Environmental Trust (MET), a quasi-governmental, statewide land trust, donors of conservation easements to NeighborSpace will now be eligible for both a State income tax credit and a State property tax credit.  These same individuals will remain eligible to receive a federal charitable income tax deduction and a local property tax exemption.  But what does all of this jibberjabber really mean? 


Alfred E. Neuman wrote that "today, it takes more brains and effort to make out the income-tax form than it does to make the income." The same could be said of making a land donation to a land trust like NeighborSpace. So let's see if we can boil this down to its essence and explain in plainer English just how our new partnership with MET will actually benefit donors of easements to NeighborSpace.


1) What Exactly is a Land Trust? A land trust is a nonprofit organization that works to conserve land typically by taking an ownership interest in the land (aka "a conservation easement") that will enable it to protect the land's conservation values (e.g. habitat, recreation, scenery, open space) forever.

2) What is a Conservation Easement? A conservation easement is an ownership interest in land that the underlying "fee" owner typically donates to a land trust so that the land's conservation values can be protected.  The easement restricts the owner from using the land in any way that would diminish the conservation values and, in exchange for this restriction, the owner gets some very generous tax benefits that are described in further detail, below.  As shown in the diagram below, however, the underlying owner still has the right to possession of the land, the right to dispose of it while he or she is alive or upon his or her death, and the right to use the land so long as such use does not diminish the conservation value(s).





 3) Of Credits, Deductions, Exemptions and Whatnot


When it comes to tax relief, given your druthers, you should always prefer an exemption to any other type of relief because it results in your paying nothing, as shown in the table below.  Similarly, you should always prefer a credit over a deduction because a credit reduces the amount of tax you owe, while a deduction merely reduces the amount of your income that is subject to taxation.








4) The Bottom Line Resulting from Our New Partnership with MET


Our new partnership with MET has evolved out of that organization's willingness to reconsider a long-standing rule that it would only co-hold an easement with another land trust if the tract under consideration was 25 or more acres in size, an unlikely result for NeighborSpace.  The co-holding is necessary because the State tax benefits only accrue to the handful of organizations like MET that are part of State agencies.  As shown in the table below explaining each of the tax benefits that are now available to donors of easements to NeighborSpace, the most significant new benefit is clearly the State income tax credit.



If, after reading the foregoing, you are still scratching your head, you are not alone. When Albert Einstein was asked in 1944 about filling out his tax return, he declared, "This is a question too difficult for a mathematician.  It should be asked of a philosopher." While I can't claim to be a very good philosopher, I am happy to answer any questions at 443-610-8601 or at barbara@neighborspacebaltimorecounty.org.