Conservation easement bill heard, passes as Landowners United Advocacy Foundation files federal lawsuit
March 21, 2016
Landowners United Advocacy Foundation launched a federal lawsuit March 14 against several state officials over what it says was the arbitrary and unfair rejection of tax credits for conservation easements. The lawsuit targets Department of Revenue officials such as Barbara Brohl, Marcia Waters and Mark Weston.
The lawsuit cites the conservation easement program prior to 2008 as a "bait-and-switch scheme," where the defendants "sought to reap and to retain the benefits of tens of millions of dollars of conservation easements while bullying and scheming to deprive grantors of lawful tax credits – usually several years after the credits had been claimed and, in many cases, transferred to third parties pursuant to state law."
Alan and Julie Gentz of Sterling, Colo. entered into LUAF after filing two other lawsuits
For them, it began in 2008 when Alan Gentz received a letter from the Colorado Department of Revenue saying his easement, already in effect, was denied. He petitioned for a hearing in 2008. Seven years later, the Department of Revenue had not responded to that petition. Furthermore, the Department of Revenue is demanding the Gentz family, along with over 700 others who put their land into conservation, repay the tax credits awarded to them plus penalties and interest through 2015.
For the Gentz family, that comes to $700,000.
"In my opinion, they should be fired," Gentz said. "They've abused their power all the way through."
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Gentz is beginning to feel the only way to see justice served is to reach the federal level.
Landowners have attempted to address their grievances through state courts and state legislation, but for the most part, they've hit a dead end.
Jon Becker's, R-Fort Morgan, House Bill 1174 was heard in the Finance committee March 15. A watered down version passed unanimously and will now move to the Appropriations committee.
Landowners like Gentz are disappointed over the bill's changes.
"I'm truly heartbroke," Gentz said. "I thought the legislative branch could do something. After all this, all we get is a chopped up bill."
The legislative fight, however, isn't over according to Becker.
If House Bill 1174 passes the Appropriations committee, it will restrict the Department of Revenue from contesting appraisals and claimed credits for easements donated prior to Jan. 2008 for which a settlement has not been reached by July 1, 2016.
The bill will eliminate the bond requirement for landowners to be heard in court and it will eliminate any additional interest in fees while under negotiation.
"Those are two big wins," Becker said. "But the biggest win will be those extinguishments."
Becker plans to introduce another bill next year, which would again aim to release landowners from an easement made in perpetuity with no value on the land.
Becker said the Department of Revenue planned to close all the open conservation easement cases by the end of the year.
As for the LUAF lawsuit, Becker thinks it's great.
"They're holding the state of Colorado accountable," Becker said. "We, the state, should be ashamed." ❖