Conservation easements: they’re never too early, and often too late.
Conservation easements protect millions of acres of privately owned farmland and open spaces throughout the United States. With conservation easements, landowners can protect their property permanently while at the same time maintain their ownership – living on their land, selling it as they wish, or passing it to their heirs.
No two parcels of land are exactly the same. No two landowners share identical situations or goals for their property. The advantage of conservation easements is that each deed is unique, written to fit the land and the circumstances of the property owners.
What is a Conservation Easement?
A conservation easement is a legal agreement in which the landowner retains ownership, use, and enjoyment of his or her property while he or she conveys certain specific rights to the holder of the easement.
The easement holder is a third-party that commits to seeing that the easement terms are upheld by future owners of the land. Therefore, the holder needs to be a carefully chosen partner. Conservation easement holders are typically charitable land trusts such as VCC or public agencies such as the Virginia Outdoors Foundation or the Virginia Department of Forestry.
Easements are voluntary and flexible, and permanent. They protect conservation values such as farmland, forests, special wildlife habitats, watersheds, and scenic landscapes. While they restrict the number of divisions and amount of development on a property, they also allow for farming, forestry, recreation, and other compatible uses. And they may provide generous tax benefits.
What are some of the benefits to the landowner?
The benefits of a conservation easement to a landowner include the permanent protection of the described parcel, continued private ownership of the parcel, and a degree of protection tailored to the property attributes and the wishes of the original owner.
What are some types of conservation easements?
Conservation easements vary by the resource they are designed to protect. They all offer the same basic options and benefits to landowners. In order to qualify for federal tax advantages, an easement must be permanent and provide a public benefit by protecting an identifiable natural or historic resource. In Virginia, all conservation easements must comply with local land-use policies including their compatibility with the local comprehensive plan.
A property rich in natural and historic resources may qualify in a number of categories and use a number of restrictions. For example, a farm that is on a battle field, adjoins a stream, includes an historic home, and whose owner allows public access to a wildlife viewing trail may provide for all of these benefits and, thus, justify each category of restriction.
Types of conservation easements:
- Open space easements (often used to protect farm and forest land)
- Historic preservation easements (used to protect architectural features of historic structures in rural or urban settings as well as historic sites or landscapes)
- Riparian easements (used to protect streams, rivers, and their floodplains)
- Scenic easements (used to protect view-scapes as well as historic or scenic corridors)
- Public recreation easements (used to protect land with recreational opportunities such as hiking and bicycling)
- Wildlife habitat easements (used to protect high-quality native ecosystems or land forms, or to protect the habitat of rare, endangered, or threatened species, or to protect the ecological viability of an area)
What are some conservation myths?
- You can’t farm, hunt, fish, or harvest timber.
- REALITY: All traditional uses are permitted.
- It gives government control of your land.
- REALITY: Actually, it may help to protect against eminent domain.
- You must have 100 acres or more.
- REALITY: Each property is judged on its merits, including parcels under 100 acres.
- It prohibits all development. You can’t even put up a dog house on an easement.
- REALITY: You negotiate the terms of the deed (including the divisions and dwellings).
- You can’t sell your land or leave it to your heirs.
- REALITY: You can, but the restrictions remain.
- You have to grant public access.
- REALITY: Not required. However, a landowner may request to allow public access.
What are the tax benefits of conservation easements?
They may include (1) estate and inheritance tax exclusion and reduction, (2) real estate property tax reduction, (3) federal and state income tax deduction, and (4) Virginia income tax credits. Please contact your tax advisor for details.
Conservation easements are one of many tools in the toolbox for the protection of the Valley’s agricultural, cultural, and natural resources.
Please contact VCC to discuss your options: [email protected] or 540-886-3541.
VCC’s primer, A Landowner’s Guide, is available here that provides helpful information to property owners about conservation easements, agricultural and forestal districts, gifts of land, and much more.