For the Conservation Curious

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Conservation Easements Make Dollars and Sense March 6, 2014

What happens if you own a beautiful, pristine piece of land on the fringe of a city and can no longer afford to keep it? The developers come knocking on your door, looking to turn your 100 acres of woods and meadows into 10, 10-acre home plots. You sign the dotted line, hand over the deed and in come the bulldozers and other heavy machinery, ready to cut down many, if not all, trees and grade the land so it’s as flat as a table top. Once that happens, it’s too late to bring back the habitat.

However, there is another alternative for landowners who want to protect their land but make money off it in the process. It’s called a conservation easement. A conservation easement, as defined by the Land Trust Alliance, is “a legal agreement between a landowner and a land trust or government agency that permanently limits uses of the land in order to protect its conservation values. It allows landowners to continue to own and use their land, and they can also sell it or pass it on to heirs.”

Yes, that’s right – the landowner still owns the land and can continue to live on it – but certain rights are removed, such as development rights. A land trust may approach a landowner or vice versa. The land trust pays a reduced price to the landowner to place the conservation easement on the property. The easement remains on the land in perpetuity – i.e. forever. The easement will contain detailed information about what can and can’t take place on the property. Usually the construction of additional buildings is restricted and there are management guidelines for how to make sure the habitat stays healthy. The land trust is in charge of at least yearly monitoring visits to make sure the landowner isn’t violating the easement. If a violation is found, they will work with the landowner to correct the violation or take them to court as a last resort.

Conservation easements can be very flexible though, so major violations that require legal action are not an everyday occurrence. They are very beneficial to the landowner because easements can provide tax deductions and drastically reduce estate taxes when the land is passed on to the next generation. The land trusts benefit by knowing that they are protecting land from being developed. The environment benefits because good habitat remains as-is, particularly in areas of high development pressure, where conservation easements make the most sense. It’s a win-win-win situation.

If you are a landowner considering a conservation easement on your property, where do you begin? Locate your nearest land trust or conservancy and talk to them about it. They will probably want to visit your property to see if it meets their criteria. Your state conservation agency may also be able to assist in connecting you to the right people. Check out the Land Trust Alliance website at www.landtrustalliance.org.

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