State backlog of bills is a sign of the times

Jeff Lampe

A varied coalition of conservation groups (Pheasants Forever, Sierra Club, Nature Conservancy, Audubon Society, Illinois Federation for Outdoor Resources and others) banded together to write this bill in response to Department of Revenue property tax assessment changes put forward in 2004.

Under those changes, landowners with less than 50 percent of their ground in production face property assessed at 33

Obviously, the increased tax burden falls on those with land in timber, wetlands, grasslands or other non-farm uses. To those interested in conservation and providing wildlife habitat, that seems counter productive since Illinois has so few acres of protected land.

So an exception was made for landowners who enroll in a Forest Stewardship Plan. They are taxed at one-sixth the lowest agricultural rate.

But that did little for landowners who had wetlands, grasslands or who did not want to harvest timber, as is typically called for in forest management plans.

Thanks to this new law, landowners can now enroll property in a Conservation Stewardship plan and have their ground assessed at 5 percent of value. To qualify landowners must own at least five acres of timber, prairie, wetlands or other undeveloped land.

There is also a clause requiring land to be placed in conservation plans for at least 10 years in order to qualify.

"Any effort we can make to improve conservation on private land is essential and this law will contribute tremendously to that effort," said Tom Schwartz, Illinois director of conservation for Pheasants and Quail Forever. "With the Conservation Stewardship Law, landowners will see property tax relief on non-agricultural lands, while at the same time conserving critical wildlife habitat."

Yet to be determined is who will write conservation plans and whether private consultants will be permitted to help. Given low staffing levels in the Department of Natural Resources, it’s unlikely biologists will not be able to meet demand once landowners learn of the tax break.

No doubt that will take time to sort out. The good news is property owned as of Oct. 1 has its assessment frozen at 2006 levels until the land is sold or otherwise transferred.

Look for more details soon.