P.R.O.S. Wins Landmark Decision for Conservation in New Mexico

The New Mexico Court of Appeals delivered its decision in favor of Pecos River Open Spaces this week.  The court ruled that our organization is exempt from paying property taxes on lands that we purchase and place into conservation easements.  The decision establishes a precedent for other conservation organizations in New Mexico.

CLICK HERE to read the official court decision.
For more details, read the Albuquerque Journal article below:

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Can’t Tax This Land
By Scott Sandlin / Albuquerque Journal / Sun, Feb 24, 2013
The Pecos River flows near property preserved by Pecos River Open Spaces Inc. The state Appeals Court ruled recently that the land maintained by the nonprofit is exempt from property taxes because conservation is a charitable purpose under state law. (COURTESY OF BILLY JOHNSON)

The Pecos River flows near property preserved by Pecos River Open Spaces Inc. The state Appeals Court ruled recently that the land maintained by the nonprofit is exempt from property taxes because conservation is a charitable purpose under state law. (Photo courtesy Billy Johnson)

The New Mexico Constitution doesn’t explicitly exempt land held for conservation from property tax, so the appeals court’s examination of the issue was a first-time analysis.Wild, natural land adjacent to the Pecos River in San Miguel County is exempt from property tax because conservation is a “charitable purpose” under state law, the New Mexico Court of Appeals has ruled in a precedent-setting case.

The appeals court’s unanimous ruling in January said conservation of the 60-acre parcel by the nonprofit Pecos River Open Spaces Inc. “provides a benefit of real worth and importance to the public,” justifying the exemption as one that provides a public good by a private actor.

The Pecos River flows near property preserved by Pecos River Open Spaces Inc. The state Appeals Court ruled recently that the land maintained by the nonprofit is exempt from property taxes because conservation is a charitable purpose under state law. (COURTESY OF BILLY JOHNSON)

(Photo courtesy Billy Johnson)

The county did not seek review by the state Supreme Court.

Santa Fe attorney Richard Hughes, who represented the nonprofit, said the organization had a good argument that it met relevant criteria for tax-exempt status.

“The Legislature has made conservation of land in its natural state a significant goal and has enlisted charitable organizations to achieve that goal,” he said.

“Importantly,” Hughes said, “this would not apply to a private person. You have to have a conservation organization that’s committed” to maintaining the land. The conservation easement on the land prevents any development or construction of any kind and the nonprofit’s intent is to preserve the property in its natural state.

He said federal tax laws clearly define organizations qualified to have conservation easements – basically, groups set up for the express purpose of maintaining land in a natural state. So the appeals court ruling will be especially meaningful for groups like the Santa Fe Conservation Trust, the New Mexico Land Conservancy and the Taos Land Trust, he said.

The San Miguel County assessor argued that conservation, while a laudable goal, didn’t make the land nontaxable.

The charitable exemption, in the position advanced by County Attorney Jesus Lopez, should not be allowed for land that is “idle, unimproved and not in actual use,” a phrase from a 1978 land tax ruling in a case brought by the National Rifle Association over its property in New Mexico.

Pecos River Open Spaces acquired the 60-acre property, which Hughes called “stunning,” in 2008 as a gift from Genevieve Coonly. It is located a quarter-mile from the Pecos River Canyon near Ilfeld. The nonprofit, headed by Christopher Thomson, later added another 16-acre parcel bordering Coonley to other tracts under conservation easements, including one 40-acre parcel and 17 acres with a swimming hole.

Vegetation and trees mark the land preserved by Pecos River Open Spaces Inc. (Courtesy of Christopher Thomson)

Vegetation and trees mark the land preserved by Pecos River Open Spaces Inc. (Photo courtesy of Christopher Thomson)

Litigation began when the county assessor sent a tax bill for about $600 and the nonprofit appealed unsuccessfully to the county’s Valuation Protests Board, which said conservation was not a charitable purpose. The nonprofit took the issue to district court, where Judge Eugenio Mathis reversed the tax board. Then the Assessor’s Office appealed.

The appeals court noted that San Miguel County has a conservation goal stated in its 2004 comprehensive plan, and that county residents want to incentivize preservation through conservation easements and purchase of development rights.

Appeals Court Judge Miles Hanisee, who authored the opinion, noted because of a public policy encouraging open space and the land’s significance as wildlife habitat, “we conclude conservation of this parcel contributes to environmental preservation and beautification of San Miguel County and the State of New Mexico.”

The opinion warns that not every act of conservation will classify land as beneficial to the public, and thus charitable.

“Such determinations entail inquiries and determinations of fact by the county boards that consider valuation protests in New Mexico,” it says.

(Journal)


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Saving the Pecos River: A Community of Conservation

Saving the Pecos River: A Community of Conservation
by: Rici Peterson, Communications and Development Director SANTA FE CONSERVATION TRUST 

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. — Margaret Mead, American anthropologist (1907-1978)

Protection of an iconic landscape starts in the heart.

Every Santa Fe Conservation Trust project is unique. We shape each cooperative partnership to the particular needs of the land, the conservation wishes of its landowner(s), and the values that the Trust wishes to protect in that particular locale. Yet every project starts in the same way. It first forms in the heart of one or two people who carry an unshakable belief that a particular place they love is too beautiful, too irreplaceable, and too important to lose.

This is a story about a thoughtful, committed group of citizens who love and are protecting one of northern New Mexico’s most beautiful landscapes—the upper Pecos River.

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North of Ilfeld, New Mexico, a wild stretch of the Pecos River twists through Cerrito Amarillo Canyon, forming small rapids and catching in deep, still pools as it negotiates the rugged terrain. Here 200-foot sandstone and limestone cliffs stand guard, historically preserving the canyon’s untamed character from development, forestry, grazing, and off-road vehicles. High above the gorge, wildflowers, cactus, piñon, juniper, ponderosa, scrub oak and mountain mahogany grow in thick profusion in rock terraces above the gorge. Along the river’s edge, gambel oak, willow and box elder maple cluster and verdant carpets of native grasses, wildflowers and shrubs stabilize the banks. The canyon is home to abundant and diverse wildlife including bear, elk, deer, and beaver.

In  2002, a local ranching family decided to sell a 32-acre tract in the heart of the canyon, and people who knew and loved this beautiful area immediately realized it had to be preserved. Local resident Christopher Thomson suggested to his neighbor Dyanna Taylor that the community pool funds to purchase and protect the land. Together they drafted a proposal and emailed it to Kevin Cassidy, another conservation-minded Ilfeld resident, who immediately committed $10,000 in a two-word “I’m in” response.

The three began brainstorming, reaching out with email appeals, and walking the land with friends and neighbors. The vision proved infectious, and neighbor after neighbor joined the group with pledges of gifts. Participants even began to look at their own properties with an eye to their conservation potential. Energy was high, but at 85% of goal, funds were tapped out and ideas were running low.

As luck or fate would have it, that summer Dyanna happened to attend a Santa Fe Conservation Trust event on the property of one of its landowner partners just a few miles upstream along the Pecos. There she learned of a new state law—the New Mexico Land Conservation Incentives Act—that rewards landowners with tax benefits for voluntary conservation efforts.

There, too, was Santa Fe attorney and outdoor enthusiast Richard Hughes. Meeting Dyanna and learning of the dilemma, it dawned on Richard that the new tax incentives could help the neighbors partially finance their conservation efforts.

Suddenly it was obvious: people could do well by doing good.

Richard and his wife Clare Rhoades immediately joined the project and procured the balance of the funds. In addition, Richard donated legal help, putting together a conservation easement with the Santa Fe Conservation Trust, whose costs were partially covered by a grant from SFCT.

In the end, through the combined efforts of 26 neighbors, friends, and partners, the property was saved.

The experience proved so satisfying that they decided to form a 501(c)3, call themselves Pecos River Open Spaces (PROS),  and do it again.

And again.

Today PROS members continue to purchase properties as they come on the market and protect them with conservation easements in direct partnership with the Santa Fe Conservation Trust. In 2006, PROS members purchased a 17-acre stretch of riverfront protecting lush riverside vegetation, trout and beaver habitat, and community access to a naturally-occurring swimming hole, a long-time favorite of local residents. In 2009, neighbor Genevieve Coonly, admiring the group’s efforts, donated an undeveloped 60-acre property to the cause. Later that year, group members raised enough to purchase yet another 16 acres of riverside property vulnerable to subdivision.

Each effort adds another pearl to the string of protected lands embracing the upper Pecos River, and deepens the commitment of participants and community members to preserving the canyon.

This is exactly why the Santa Fe Conservation Trust exists—to support such efforts. Our charge is to be here long after these dedicated, generous people are gone, a permanent partner for current and future generations who know that a place worth living in is a place anchored by a network of natural lands and waters.  We’re proud to be here for our landowner partners along the Pecos River, and in communities throughout northern New Mexico.

The dream to save this stretch of the Pecos River started in the hearts of those who loved it and cared enough to invest in its protection. The rest just flows naturally.

As will this beautiful, forever-wild piece of New Mexico.