This Land Is Your Land
(Information Compiled by the Wilbraham Open Space and Recreation Plan Committee)
Wilbraham, Massachusetts has been blessed, to date, with what has been characterized as New England rural charm. Visitors and residents as well speak glowingly of the town's quaint characteristics of colonial homes, stone walls, tree-lined roads and an atmosphere of relaxing serenity.
We are fortunate to retain these characteristics, but as population increases and as housing developments encroach upon the town's open space, the rural charm will dissipate. To perpetuate for our own appreciation and to save for future residents the pleasurable environment which today's townspeople enjoy, it is urgently necessary for the town to act today to save open space which we are prone to take for granted.
It is estimated that there are still many acres of open space in Wilbraham which could be developed. How much actually will be developed in the years to come is of course not known. We cannot assume that the land owner of today who truly loves the land and wishes it to remain forever wild will not be tempted by the pressures of developers to dispose of it.
If all these acres were in areas of one-acre zoning, we would have a potential increase of homes and a substantial increase in town services. Many studies have shown that the cost of development does not pay its way in new tax revenues.
Without active intervention, open space most probably will not remain. We must realize its value in preserving clean air and water, forest and agricultural lands, and wildlife habitats. The existence of open space enhances a community both aesthetically and economically. Property values tend to rise near open space. The value of open space will not depreciate through time while its benefits can only increase.
To retain the present character of the town, citizen support is a must. It is imperative to support land acquisition proposals at town meeting and encourage landowners to think of the town when disposing of land.
In 1973 the General Court enacted into law the Scenic Roads Act which authorizes municipalities of the Commonwealth to designate any street other than a numbered route or state highway as a Scenic Road. The Wilbraham Conservation Commission subsequently introduced an article on the warrant of the 1974 annual town meeting which received the overwhelming approval of the voters.
Under provisions of the law, any repair, maintenance, reconstruction, or paving work done with respect to Scenic Roads shall not involve or include the cutting or removal of trees or the tearing down or destruction of stone walls except with prior written consent of The Planning Board. The Planning Board must hold a public hearing before making any decision concerning the provisions of the law.
Much of Wilbraham's charm and rural appeal is due to its roadside trees and stone walls. Designation of the major roads of the town as Scenic Roads gives greater assurance of continued roadside amenities. The provision of a public hearing affords the opportunity for citizen reaction and input; everyone opposed to the widening and straightening of roads in town will thus have an opportunity to be heard should such action be suggested or requested.
The following are designated as Scenic Roads under the provisions of Chapter 40, Section 15C of the General laws:
Beebe Road, Bennet Road, Bolles Road, Branch Road, Burleigh Road, Chilson Road, Crane Hill Road, East Longmeadow Road, Faculty Street, Glendale Road, Hollow Road, Main Street, Maple Street, Maynard Road, Monson Road, Mountain Road, Ridge Road, Soule Road, Springfield Street (main street to Faculty Street), Stony Hill Road, Tinkham Road (from Main Street East).
It is not at all unusual for landowners who truly love their very own portion of the Great Outdoors to wish it to remain forever in its natural condition. However, increasing taxes and personal finance issues frequently force such landowners to dispose of their holdings.
The following are ways in which landowners can preserve their land in its natural state and receive a financial benefit at the same time.
A conservation gift is a donation of land to a qualified land trust or agency (an IRS-recognized conservation organization). Non-profit land trusts and conservation organizations, municipal conservation commissions, and conservation agencies are qualified recipients.
The outright gift of land will usually result in the most tax savings to the landowner. Aside from avoiding any further real estate, estate, and inheritance taxes on the value of the land, which would apply also to the sale of the land, maximum savings are obtained from federal and state income and capital gains taxes. Gifts of land permanently protect the land, remove property tax liability, reduce income tax by deducting the fair market value of the gift, and reduce estate tax by removing property from the estate.
Even if landowners feel that they must receive some cash on the disposition of their land, they should still consider selling it for conservation purposes for less than its fair market value. They can deduct, for federal income tax purposes as a charitable contribution, the difference between the fair market value of the land and its "bargain or charitable sale" price.
Sale to a Municipality or to a Non-Profit
In the case of an outright sale of land for fair market value, landowners would pay a capital gains tax on the difference between their cost (basis) and the sale price. If the land has important natural resource values, an agency might purchase the land to protect; for example, water quality. Under Article 97, the land is acquired for conservation purposes and cannot be used for other purposes except by a 2/3 vote of each branch of the General Court, i.e. the State Legislature.
In many cases, the most important consideration in the disposition of land is not real estate or income taxes but, rather, estate taxes. The simplest and best known method for landowners to dispose of property at death is by means of a provision in their will. Land willed to a qualified organization will not be subjected to estate or inheritance taxes. However, the income tax deduction is lost by waiting until death to make a gift. By setting up the gift of land during their lifetime, landowners simplify the settlement of the estate and reduce probate costs.
Landowners may wish to retain ownership of land for personal benefit and as a benefit for their family, together with all rights to use it in its undeveloped state and to dispose of it by inheritance or sale. In this way, owners maintain the right to use their land for farming, forestry, and/or recreation. These owners can accomplish this purpose and still obtain substantial tax benefits by donating a conservation restriction in perpetuity.
A conservation restriction is a legally enforceable agreement between owners of property and a qualified organization in which owners promise to keep their land in essentially the same state as it is at the time of the agreement. A conservation restriction runs with the land and is, therefore, binding upon any subsequent owners of the real estate.
The property must have conservation value and be worth preserving in its natural state. A conservation restriction protects wildlife, forests, meadows, views and water quality.
An important fact to remember about conservation restrictions is that the title to the property remains with its owner. In addition, the public does not obtain any rights to enter upon restricted land unless the landowner gives specific permission. Thus, owners who agree to such a restriction may remain on their property and use it in any manner they wish, provided that the land is kept in its natural state consistent with the terms of the restriction. The owner may sell or lease the property and may dispose of it in a will. The restriction, however, will be binding upon the lessees, grantees, heirs or any other future owners of the land.
Owners agreeing to a conservation restriction also insure that the integrity of the property will be maintained after death, rather than be sold to a developer by heirs or executors.
Landowners who donate a conservation restriction in perpetuity are permitted to deduct, for income tax purposes, the value of the restriction. The value is determined by subtracting the value of the property subject to the restriction from the original value of the property. A conservation restriction may reduce property tax by limiting the uses allowed on the property. It can also reduce estate tax because of restricted use of the property. Not only does removing the development potential of the land reduce taxes, the donation of a conservation restriction is seen as a charitable gift, further reducing taxes.
A conservation restriction can be sold to a qualified conservation organization if the land has exceptional natural resources. This could be a “bargain sale” where the land is sold below market value. The difference in the appraised price and the sale price is considered a charitable tax deduction.
Chapter 61, 61A, and 61B
Landowners can also preserve their land temporarily and gain tax relief. The three types of property that apply are Chapter 61 - Forestry, Chapter 61a – Agriculture and Horticulture, and Chapter 61b - Open Space and Recreation. Landowners can get more information on Chapter 61 – Forestry by contacting the Conservation Commission and more information on Chapter 61A – Agriculture and Horticulture by contacting the Agricultural Commission. Details of the Chapter 61B – Open Space and Recreation provision are described below.
By applying annually to the Town assessor's office under Chapter 61B, landowners can enroll their land. In doing so, a lien is attached to the property to ensure that the land remains beneficial to the public. This lien stays with the property if it is sold or transferred.
In order to be enrolled, the amount of land must be at least five contiguous acres, excluding residences and other structures. There are two categories of land provided for in Chapter 61B; one category is Open Space, and the other is Recreation.
In the Open Space category, the land must be maintained in its natural state for the term of the agreement or managed under a ten-year forest management plan. Public access is not required.
In the Recreation category, land is open for environmentally friendly recreation, such as hiking, camping, skiing, and swimming. The land must be open to the public or to members of a nonprofit organization.
In return for landowner enrollment, the land is assessed at its recreational value, not at its developmental value. The assessed value is reduced by 75%, thus saving the owner a considerable amount of money on property taxes.
In order to discourage landowners from enrolling solely as a way to save on taxes before developing their land, there is a provision making landowners responsible for paying penalty taxes if the land is converted into non-chapter use within 10 years of its enrollment. The penalty calculations are given in detail on the state website listed below. If landowners wish to withdraw from enrollment after 5 years, there are no penalties as long as they keep their land in a state which is eligible for any of the Chapter 61 programs.
Finally, if the land use is converted to non-chapter use while it is enrolled, the town is given an option of first refusal.
Some of the 61 and 61A issues are complex and require the assistance of an attorney and discussions with the Town Assessor’s Office. This summary is to help in giving direction to landowners.
(The above information was taken , in part, from "Gifts of Land for Conservation," a booklet published by The Conservation Law Foundation , "Conservation Gifts" from Massachusetts Land Trust Coalition, and "Conservation Options" from The Greater Worcester Land Trust.)
A good source for understanding Conservation Restrictions is “Conservation Restriction as a Land Protection Tool” by Robert A. Levite, Esq , UMASS Extension.
Protected Conservation Areas
HARDWOOD HILL: Relatively open second growth hardwood. Gently rolling terrain ~30 acres.
WHITE CEDAR SWAMP: Nowhere else is a White Cedar Swamp of this size found so far inland. Very dense; impassable except in winter. Delightful woodland trails around the swamp ~ 185 acres.
FOUNTAIN PARK: Former site of State Pheasant Farm, closed in the early 1980s; open fields, passive recreation, site of summer concerts and former Peach Festival.
SAWMILL POND: Five-acre pond, fishing (bass and pan fish), extensive alder swamp, trails, streams ~ 59 acres.
PESKY SARPENT: Locale of the vicinity of the incident recalled in the "Ballard Springfield Mountain" whereby young Timothy Merrick succumbed to the bite of a "pesky serpent" while mowing hay. Area consists of old fields, thickets, hillside woodland ~ 70 acres.
SUNRISE PEAK: Hiking, woodland discoveries, fine view ~ 72 acres.
BRUUER POND: Aquatic life, bird watching, skating ~ 4.5 acres.
THAYER BROOK: Small stream, open woodland, overgrown old fields, old cabin; location of the Community Gardens with plots available to all residents ~ 166.5 acres.
TWELVE MILE BROOK: Exploration in overgrown meadows and bottom land, trout fishing ~ 75 acres.
OLD SPRING HILL: illside woodland, view of Connecticut River Valley, old spring formerly used for lowland water supply ~ 15 acres.
CRANE HILL at DANFORTH FARMS/MILL POND AREA: Old dam on Twelve Mile Brook and open fields, hiking, old ball fields, disc golf course.
TOWOKOS: Algonquin word for "forest" A two-piece wooded area. 26 acres.
RICE NATURE PRESERVE: Views, woods, open fields, hiking trails and wildlife ~ 150 acres.
DRUMLIN ESTATES: Off Three Rivers Rd ~ 31 woodland acres
SPEC POND RECREATION AREA
STONY HILL SOCCER FIELDS
STATE-OWNED RED BRIDGE BOAT LAUNCH
POST OFFICE PARK RECREATION AREA