If you’re a landowner seeking to balance land use with conservation, and you want to make sure your vision for your property remains intact beyond your lifetime, consider setting up a conservation easement. A conservation easement (also called a conservation agreement) is a voluntary but legally binding agreement between a landowner and a land trust that protects private land from future development that would negatively affect its natural value.
Conservation easements can be designed for general conservation purposes or more specific goals, such as the protection of water sources or endangered species habitat. They can apply to an entire property or to smaller parcels of land, and can be tailored to the landowner’s specific needs and goals, such as continued income generation from farming or ranching. Conservation easements protect land from future exploitation such as surface mining, toxic waste dumping, or subdivision for residential or commercial activities.
Under a conservation easement, the landowner retains ownership and use of the land, as well as the right to decide which activities will be allowed. A conservation easement does not affect a landowner’s ability to sell the land or pass it on to heirs. It is simply a decision to set up legal protection for land to ensure it will never be developed. The terms are established jointly by the landowner and the land trust that will hold the easement.
Once a conservation easement is in place, it usually “runs with the land,” meaning the restrictions remain in effect even if the land is sold or inherited.
Rules for conservation easements
Under IRS rules, a conservation easement must achieve at least one of the following purposes: preservation of land for outdoor recreation or education of the general public; preservation of natural habitat for fish, wildlife, or plants; preservation of open space, including farmland or forest; or preservation of a historically significant structure or land area.
A conservation easement defines the activities that are permitted and prohibited on the land, and the rights granted to the easement holder. Typically, a conservation easement restricts any activities that would negatively impact the land with regards to a specific conservation objective. Some easements place requirements on the landowner to ensure conservation objectives are met. These may include fencing off certain areas to keep livestock out or changing agricultural or timber harvesting methods to avoid impact on streams, habitat, or soil quality.
Benefits of conservation easements
Landowners enter into conservation agreements in order to protect their land from destructive development by future owners. There are also a variety of potential economic benefits for landowners who place conservation easements on their property. In many cases, easements can result in considerable tax savings. By limiting future development, a conservation easement may lower a property’s market value, which can lead to significant reductions in property tax. It can also substantially reduce estate taxes, often enabling heirs to keep land intact instead of breaking it into parcels to pay onerous tax bills.
Depending on how a conservation easement is set up, it may qualify as a charitable donation, which can reduce federal and state income taxes. In this scenario, the easement is considered a donation of development rights to the land, and the value of the tax deduction is equivalent to the difference between the property’s market value without development restrictions and its value with the easement, as determined by a qualified appraiser.
Things to consider
Because they are legally binding, conservation agreements should only be entered into after careful consideration of the benefits and consequences. While conservation easements are a way to ensure your vision for your land endures beyond your lifetime, it’s important to be absolutely certain that you want the restrictions to apply forever. It’s also essential to find the right easement holder, a conservation partner that shares your goals and has the capacity and stability to monitor the land and enforce your easement over the long term.
Although conservation easements typically bring tax benefits, they also involve costs. Landowners should expect to pay fees for legal, tax, and appraisal services, and may also be required to contribute to a stewardship fund after the easement is established.
How to establish a conservation easement
Once you’ve decided on a conservation easement, there are several steps to making it happen. First, think about your vision for your land and your specific objectives for a conservation easement. Consult with family members and professionals who can help you make appropriate decisions for the long term. Next, research potential land trust partners and meet with those that seem like the best fit to discuss your goals and the rights you want to keep. Once you’ve chosen your preferred partner, arrange for a representative from the land trust to evaluate your property and discuss specific terms. Once both parties are on the same page, you can move forward with the legal and financial aspects of the agreement.