Conservation Easements: Preserving Your Land’s Future
A conservation easement is a powerful tool for protecting land. Restricting industrial, commercial, and levels of residential development that would destroy the property’s natural resources, a conservation easement secures the future of agriculture and forestry, provides for wildlife, and preserves the beauty of our landscape for generations to come.
With a conservation easement agreement, landowners can protect the land they love, ensuring it remains a forest or farm and a place for future generations to enjoy a similar rural experience.
Let’s explore how easements work and their positive impact on our communities.
A conservation easement is a voluntary legal agreement between a landowner and a land trust or government agency that protects the conservation values of a property by limiting future development. The conservation easement is recorded in the county’s land records and “runs with” the land, applying to all future landowners. Entering into a conservation easement is a landowner’s personal choice. The landowner (called “donor”) and the land trust (“easement holder”) decide together on the restrictions to include in the easement, aiming to meet both the land’s needs and the landowner’s goals.
Yes! A conservation easement grants the easement holder (land trust) the right to enforce the easement’s restrictions to protect the land. The landowner retains ownership, can continue using the land as before, and can freely sell the land or pass it to heirs.
No. The public does not have access to an easement property unless the easement-granting landowner chose to write public access into the easement agreement. Occasionally, a funder will only provide funds for easements with public access, but the landowner still has the choice to take the funding and allow access or not. The landowner makes the choice.
Each easement is unique, just as every property and landowner is unique. Together the landowner and the land trust decide the easement’s terms. Typically, easements allow for a home site and continued farming, forestry, hunting, & fishing. The most common restrictions apply to subdivision, extent of impervious surfaces (i.e. buildings and pavement), mineral extraction, and industrial/commercial uses.
Benefits commonly include tax benefits, estate planning benefits, and perhaps most important, peace of mind that the land is protected. In some cases landowners can be paid for some or all of the value of the easement’s development restrictions. Tax benefits include property tax reductions, federal income tax deductions (for up to 16 years), and in some cases, estate tax reductions.
Estate planning benefits include deciding early what will become of the land, often a landowner’s most significant asset, and allowing for a person’s estate to be shared equitably among heirs without physically dividing the land.
Direct cash payments are possible but less common. These occur when landowners choose to sell the development rights from the land. In these cases, the land trust applies for funding to purchase the conservation easement from the landowner. This occurs most often on farmland with high quality agricultural soils.
Finally, most of our clients tell us that protecting the land is the best benefit. Some care most about passing farmland to the next generation. Some are most concerned about wildlife.
Easements come in all sizes, but Cacapon & Lost Rivers Land Trust typically works with properties at least 50 acres in size and more commonly 100 acres or more.
After the easement is recorded in the county land records, the land trust (easement holder) is responsible for ensuring the terms of the easement are followed. We make annual site visits to ensure compliance with the easement and, if necessary, engage in legal defense to protect the property from an easement violation. As we like to say, “You make the rules; we enforce them.”