Open conservancies or pay tax, Casperson says

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Capital News Service
LANSING — Nonprofit organizations that safeguard land and habitat in Southeast Michigan are worried about a proposal that could tax their preserves.
A proposal by Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, would require land conservancies to pay property taxes if they restrict access to the public, including access for motorized and non-motorized vehicles.
In the draft bill, motorized recreational activities could be limited to designated trails, however.
The idea creates concern among people who are responsible for managing land conservancies.

Leo Dorr, the treasurer of the Lapeer Land Conservancy, said he is worried about negative effects on the work, conservation and ecology of his organization and properties.
Dorr said that in exchange for lands given by donors, the conservancy needs to ensure there are improvements to the environment, so Casperson’s proposal would be “contrary to the purpose” of its mission.
“We are a little bit horrified,” said Susan Lackey, the executive director of Legacy Land Conservancy in Ann Arbor, which protects farmland and other resources in Washtenaw and Jackson counties. Lackey said 200 out of 5,000 acres of its lands would be affected by the tax proposal.
She said it would be a “difficult situation” if the organization has to choose between violating the terms of donations and running the “risk of putting financial strain on the organization.”
Legacy Land Conservancy has agreements with donors to allow the public to participate in activities such as birdwatching, hiking and wildlife watching. However, the agreements exclude access for dirt bikes and motorized vehicles out of concern about ecological damage.
Lackey estimated that her group would have to pay $55,000 in property taxes for each of its five preserves if the proposal passes. And that might cut the budget of the conservancy to half, a drop from $500,000 to $250,000.
Casperson said many people wrongly assume that he is proposing that the public could go anywhere they want and do whatever they want on the land owned by conservancies.
He said he has no intention of destroying the environment but doesn’t think it’s fair to suggest that each inch of land is so precious that the public can’t use it for something else.
To some degree, Lackey agreed.
There are some places where uses other than quiet enjoyment might be acceptable, she said, “but land managers should decide where to allow those activities based on particular conditions, such as geographic features.”
Chris Bunch, executive director of the Rochester-based Six Rivers Regional Land Conservancy that manages five preserves in Oakland, Macomb, Lapeer and Genesee counties, expressed similar concerns. The ability to decide what types of activities should be allowed on their property should be assured, he said.
“We have a commitment to people who support us and give the land to us,” Bunch said.
Casperson said he hasn’t decided when to introduce the bill and expects a conversation between both sides to encourage flexibility on the issue.
“We might not go anywhere. The public may say, no, we like just the way it is,” he said. But the point is that “you get a tax exemption so you should do something for it.”

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