Does protecting land for conservation drive up local property taxes? Researchers from Harvard University, Amherst College, and Highstead Foundation sought to better understand the link between land conservation and property taxes on New England towns and cities. Harvard’s Alexey Kalinin and Jonathan Thompson, Amherst’s Katharine Sims, and Highstead’s Spencer Meyer released a working paper and summary document intended to quantify the impacts of conservation on tax rates for individual property owners.

“We know that protected lands provide important benefits to communities, including recreation, preservation of cultural heritage and wildlife habitat as well as improving water quality, decreasing flood risk, and increasing climate resilience,” said Kalinin. “But communities can meet opposition to conservation by those who are concerned about the impacts on property taxes.”

The research paper, Does Land Conservation Raise Property Taxes? Evidence from New England Cities and Towns, concludes that while there was significant new land protection, the tax impacts were small in most communities — a 1% increase in the percentage of town land protected was estimated to cause a 0.024% increase in the tax rate. This corresponds to an increase in a homeowner’s annual tax bill of $0.72 per $100,000 of taxable property value for the average annual increase in area protected of 85 acres. For the owner of a typical New England home (valued at $266,493), that would be an additional $1.92 on their tax bill of $3475. Where they had the greatest effects, the impact for 85 acres of new protection ranged from a $5 to $30 annual tax bill increase per $100,000 of property value.

In addition, these small impacts did not persist—the study found no impacts beyond three years.

“There is often concern that since protected land is taxed at a lower rate than developed land or removed from the tax base, it can shift the tax burden to other taxpayers,” said Sims. “But on the flip side, protected land typically requires fewer services, like schools and road maintenance, and permanent protection can boost the value of nearby properties, potentially increasing other revenues.”

While the findings overall showed a small impact, there were some cases where the tax increases were greater. “Considering differences across municipal types, we found more substantial tax rate increases when towns were growing slowly, had lower median incomes, fewer second homes, and less land enrolled in Chapter 61 current use programs,” said Thompson. “The size of these impacts ranged from $5 to at most $30 in additional taxes paid for each $100,000 in property.”

“While the tax impacts remain small, they seem to impact the towns least able to afford tax increases, said Meyer. “These disparities warrant further attention and may require increased funding from state, federal and private sources.”

About the Study

The researchers used data from more than 1400 towns and cities in New England from 1990 to 2015 to assess the impact of new land protection on local property tax rates. New protection included private conservation easements and purchases by non-profit organizations, local governments, and state and federal agencies for conservation. To isolate the impacts on tax rates that can be attributed directly to land protection, they used data from the same municipalities over time and controlled for changes in employment, prior growth in the tax base, and economic and population trends. Read a Q&A with the authors here.

About the Authors

Alexey Kalinin is a natural resource economist and a post-doctoral researcher at Harvard Forest. His current research is focused on economic impacts of land protection in New England. 

Katharine Sims is a Professor at Amherst College, where she teaches economics and environmental studies. Her research seeks to understand when and how land conservation policies can achieve both economic development and improved environmental quality.

Spencer Meyer is the Director of Science Strategy and Stakeholder Engagement for NCX. He was a Senior Conservationist with the Highstead Foundation from 2016 to 2021, where he led the conservation finance and conservation science programs.

Jonathan Thompson is a Senior Ecologist at the Harvard Forest, a department of Harvard University. His research focuses on long-term and broad-scale changes in forest ecosystems, with an emphasis on quantifying how land use affects forest ecosystem processes and services.