What are conservation easements?
Land trusts and private landowners most commonly work together to protect conservation values on their lands through voluntary agreements called conservation easements. These agreements permanently limit the uses of land in order to protect conservation values.
Whether a landowner sells or donates the development rights on their property, conservation easements enable them to be fairly compensated for their land’s development potential. They continue to own and use their land, and they can also sell it or pass it on to heirs. Conservation easements are usually appealing to willing landowners for several reasons:
- Landowners continue to own the land. They can sell, lease, bequeath or donate the land with a conservation easement on it;
- Since the easement is associated with the property’s title, the land is protected forever, even as it changes hands;
- Land trusts work with landowners to tailor the easement language to both the landowner’s and the land trust’s needs and goals.
- Conservation easements may apply to an entire property or a portion of it.
- Income tax, estate tax, property tax and/or gift taxes may be reduced or eliminated.
How do conservation easements work?
Land ownership carries with it a bundle of rights, including the right to develop, construct buildings, farm, restrict access or harvest timber, among others. A landowner can give up one or more of those rights for a purpose such as conservation while retaining ownership of the remainder of the rights. In ceding a right, the landowner “eases” it to another entity, such as a land trust. For example, a landowner might give up the right to build additional structures while retaining the right to grow crops.
Each conservation easement is unique. A land trust will work with each landowner to determine their conservation goals, in combination with the goals of the land trust and the community. Land trusts work with interested landowners to determine the best plan for the future of their land.
Conservation easements offer great flexibility. For example, an easement on property containing rare wildlife habitat might prohibit any development, while an easement on a farm might allow continued farming and the addition of agricultural structures. An easement may apply to all or a portion of the property, and need not require public access.
Easements permanently protect the land, binding future landowners. The land trust is responsible for making sure the landowners follows the easement terms. Once an easement is in place, the land trust is responsible for enforcing the restrictions detailed in the easement document. This is done by monitoring the property on a regular basis, typically once a year. Land trust stewardship staff will make sure the property continues to provide the benefits outlined in the easement document.
How do land trusts fund conservation easements?
Land trusts pursue funding, often a mix of government and grant funds, to compensate the landowner. Alternatively, landowners can donate a conservation easement which enables the landowner to take advantage of potential tax deductions. The compensation value is the difference between fair market value before and after the sale of the conservation easement. An independent appraisal process determines the fair market value.
Conservation Easements: An important tool
Landowners interested in preserving their private property for future generations have a powerful tool in the conservation easement. Easements make sense for some landowners and not for others. Private property rights mean that all landowners have the ability to do with their land as they wish.
Conservation easements play an important role in ensuring that as Washington grows and develops, we preserve the character of our majestic wild lands, the productivity of our farms and forests and the health of our streams and wildlife habitat.