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Charities Fight for Easement Donors

Preservation Groups Target Legislators in Move to Save Tax Breaks

By Joe Stephens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 26, 2005; Page A02

A national coalition of charities is enlisting top Republican lobbyists, amassing a "war chest" and taking to "battle stations" to block a congressional plan to roll back income-tax breaks available to donors of conservation easements.

Conservation groups and historic preservation organizations have joined forces to persuade Congress to reject changes proposed last month by the Joint Committee on Taxation to stem growing abuses by easement donors. The tax breaks were originally meant to prevent developers from ravaging historic streetscapes and scenic vistas.

_____Rich With History_____
facade thumbnail Interactive: How historic easements work and who profits from them.
Graphic: The number of property owners applying to have their home or commercial building certified as contributing to a designated historical district has increased dramatically.
Map: Washington is the nation's leading city for historic facade easements, with easements protecting about 960 properties, many clustered in upscale neighborhoods.
Loophole Pays Off on Upscale Buildings (The Washington Post, Dec 12, 2004)
Tax Break Turns Into Big Business (The Washington Post, Dec 13, 2004)
Panel Advises Ending Tax Breaks for Easements (The Washington Post, Jan 28, 2005)
Group Ends Pitches for Home Easements (The Washington Post, Jan 12, 2005)
Senators Vow to End Tax Break on Easements (The Washington Post, Dec 18, 2004)

Friday's Question:
It was not until the early 20th century that the Senate enacted rules allowing members to end filibusters and unlimited debate. How many votes were required to invoke cloture when the Senate first adopted the rule in 1917?
51
60
64
67


In letters, e-mails and national conference calls, nonprofit officials said they are compiling a database of the childhood friends of congressional leaders as well as large contributors. The campaign urges local activists to handwrite "grassroots" letters to Congress based on samples provided by the national organizations and posted on the groups' Web sites.

Campaign organizers say the "disturbing" committee proposals would "wreak havoc" and "destroy" the good work of the nonprofits.

The Washington-based Land Trust Alliance is overseeing the effort, coordinating with the Nature Conservancy, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the American Farmland Trust, Ducks Unlimited, the Trust for Public Land and the Conservation Fund.

In a conference call earlier this month, Land Trust Alliance President Rand Wentworth said he has been working around the clock to develop a campaign plan.

"We are really taking the battle to the street, and it is battle stations," he said. "We have to find land trust board members, donors, friends who are close friends with members of Congress -- first-name basis, friends from childhood, campaign donors -- who would be willing at the very least to place a phone call, but ideally to come to Washington and meet with those members of Congress and advance this important message." Once the alliance has compiled a database of legislators' friends, Wentworth said, "we can pull those levers when we most need them."

Wentworth recommended that individual land trusts mine their "deep Republican connections" to ensure success.

"To win this campaign, we need to build a war chest," he said in the conference call, a recording of which was placed on the alliance's Web site. "I think there are hundreds of landowners, foundations, corporations, donors, board members who understand what's at threat here at this moment and would be willing to make a donation.

". . . If you do have relationships that might help neutralize that expert body [the Joint Committee on Taxation], that would be helpful to know."

On its Web site, the Land Trust Alliance says: "It is important to place positive conservation stories in your local newspaper. . . . We have a team of experienced tax lobbyists already in place, and they are already touching base with the House and Senate leadership to assess where we are, and who will be willing to help us."

The Joint Committee on Taxation is recommending that Congress end income-tax breaks available to homeowners who give charitable organizations easements that restrict changes to personal residences or surrounding land.

For open land and historic buildings not used as residences, the committee recommends reducing the amount that may be written off from 100 percent of the easement's estimated cash value to 33 percent. The plan would cap tax deductions at 5 percent of the building's total market value.

The changes would end a variety of abuses and stem excessive deductions claimed in connection with the easements, and it would end self-dealing by conservation groups, the committee said in a staff report released last month. Over the next decade, the reforms would save the U.S. Treasury an estimated $1 billion.


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