You’ll never forget the special places where you connected with nature as a child. Maybe it was that creek bank, or that hillside or that grove of trees. For me, it was a field filled with wildflowers and adventure north of my grandma’s strawberry patch that now only exists as a memory. Developers turned it into a middle school. But the good news is that if you or someone in your family owns such a special place, a conservation easement is a legal way to protect and preserve it so future generations can enjoy it just as you have.
A conservation easement is a voluntary legal agreement between a landowner and a land trust or government agency. For conservation purposes, an easement permanently prohibits future development of a property by limiting the use of the land.
Take, for example, Fred and Vera Shield who wanted to preserve their 6,700-acre ranch for their daughter and son-in-law. They established conservation easements that protect an aquifer recharge area and restrict residential or commercial development on their property. For more stories of easements in action, visit this Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas resource.
Urban areas are expanding at about twice the rate of population growth. Easements don’t prevent urban areas from expanding — they only govern where they expand. According to a 2005 census, local, regional and national land trusts conserve 37 million acres throughout the United States, a 54 percent increase from 2000. Because protecting land is a long-term, high-effort commitment, the best approach to achieving your family’s or community’s conservation goals is to work with an existing land trust. Land trusts are non-governmental, nonprofit organizations that work to protect land for conservation purposes. An agreement reached between a land trust and a property owner is perpetual, binding the current owner and even future owners to case-by-case restrictions. Once the propery owner and the trust sign, the owner has permanently relinquished his or her rights. Under a land trust’s supervision, conservation easements protect a wide range of land values from development that would negatively affect those values.
More than 1,700 land trusts have been established, serving every state. American Farmland Trust and The Nature Conservancy are two national examples.
How does land qualify?
Land trusts establish protection criteria and every land trust has specific conservation goals and establishes protection criteria. Ecological value is one factor that makes a property eligible for a conservation easement, but it’s not the only one. Other factors include water quality, endangered species habitats, forest buffer zones, open spaces, scenic views and agricultural production. The goal is to restrict land development, even for land that is not accessible by the public.
What are the pros and cons of easements?
A landowner has options when granting land (or a parcel of it) to a land trust. Every agreement is uniquely tailored to the land’s conservation value, the landowner’s desires and the land trust’s criteria. Whether the landowner retains ownership and management, or sells, leases or donates the property, the landowner forfeits some associated rights. For example, under the Shields’ easements, the family retains the right to ranching operations and hunting but may relinquish the right to build a new structure. When they pass the land on, the same rules will apply.
Engaging in a conservation easement can save you money on taxes, but the legalities are confusing and situational, so contact a local land trust for more information. You can search the Land Trust Alliance to find its members by name or county.
An easement does involve short-term costs that depend on variable advisory and survey fees. In addition to these fees, many trusts ask the landowner to contribute to a “stewardship fund” that would pay for future litigation if it were required to protect the easement. An easement will affect the property’s market value, but this depends on how restrictive the terms of the easement are and how developable the property is to begin with. The complexity of setting up an easement depends on the internal process of the land trust and the characteristics of your property.
Regardless, a conservation easement is a great way to safeguard your land’s natural qualities during your lifetime and beyond.
How do I get started?
Contact land trusts in your area to discuss what you want to accomplish. Learn what qualities the organizations are interested in protecting. Depending on the complexity of your land, arrange for necessary surveys, as well as legal and financial advice. Consult with family and community members to get their input. Once the easement has been established, the land trust monitors the property to maintain the easement’s conditions. Because the land trust is responsible for upholding the easement’s terms, your conservation vision will continue to flourish once you’ve moved on to greener pastures.
For much more on land conservation, read interviews with Ernest Cook, senior vice president and director of national programs at the Trust for Public Land, and Sylvia Bates, director of standards and research at the Land Trust Alliance.