What is Fee Land Ownership?

Sometimes land trusts conserve land by owning it outright. This is called fee land ownership, or sometimes “fee title” or “fee simple” acquisition. Landowners may wish to donate their property to a land trust. Sometimes, in special cases, they may sell the title and all rights and interest to a land trust. The land trust then retains and manages the land to conserve its unique and special qualities forever.

In determining whether to hold land in fee title, questions a land trusts may need to answer include:

  • Does the property help achieve the organization’s conservation mission?
  • Do the values of the property align with available government or grant funding sources?
  • Does the organization have the capacity for the property’s long-term stewardship?

The primary ways that land trusts acquire land are described below:

Donation

When a landowner donates property to a land trust, they donate the property’s title and all of its rights and interest. Similar to conservation easement donations, fee land donations may qualify as tax-deductible charitable donations. The land donation must benefit the public by permanently protecting important conservation resources and meet other federal tax code requirements. As required by the IRS, the donation value or purchase price of the property is established by a qualified appraisal.

Sale

Some land has extraordinary conservation values. When a landowner is not in a position to donate such a property, a land trust may decide to seek grant funding and private donations to protect it. Faced with immediate threat from development, land trusts can work quickly to raise private donations and find creative financing solutions.

Partial Donation

Sometimes a landowner sells his or her land to a land trust for less than its fair market value. Besides making the purchase more affordable for the land trust, the landowner can claim the difference between the sale price and the fair market value as a charitable donation. A partial donation, what is also called a “bargain sale,” also may reduce capital gains taxes for the landowner. As with other purchases, the land trust may decide to seek grant funding and private donations for the purchase of a partial donation.

Life Estate

Landowners who want to donate their land for permanent protection and continue living on the property may consider a life estate. With a life estate, landowners retain their right to live on the property while donating the property’s remainder interest to the land trust.  The landowner must uphold the property’s conservation values and continue to be responsible for its maintenance, taxes, and insurance. Upon their death or a specified date, the land trust assumes complete ownership. Landowners can qualify for a tax deduction based on the value of the remainder interest that they donate to the land trust. The value of remainder interest is determined by IRS actuarial tables.

Partnerships

Land trusts will often convey fee land ownership to a public agency partner such as a state park or county, and reserve a conservation easement to ensure the agency continues to manage the land for the reasons the land was protected.

Conversely, land trusts will sometimes grant conservation easements on land owned in fee by the land trust to an appropriate public agency—for example, to the state or county for park purposes.

Visit land trust owned lands

Land trusts are good stewards of the lands they manage, and many here in Washington own substantial acreage for their conservation values, often working with both the public and partners for restoration and recreational opportunities. Land trusts manage their lands in accordance with best practices established by the Land Trust Alliance Accreditation Commission.

Not all nature preserves owned by land trusts are open to the public in order to protect to sensitive and rare plant and animal habitat. But land trusts across Washington own and manage nature preserves that you can visit and enjoy. Contact your local land trust to find a nature preserve near you. Here are a few places you can visit:

Lyre Conservation Area, Clallam County
North Olympic Land Trust

Just 20 miles west of Port Angeles, the Lyre Conservation Area is an wonderful place to explore along the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Enjoy bird and wildlife viewing, surfing, picnicking, fishing and beach walking along a half mile of shoreline. The Conservation Area covers 280 acres of estuary at the mouth of the Lyre River. You’ll find streams, tide-flats, kelp beds, and a large diverse upland forest and excellent habitat for salmon and a variety of migratory and resident birds and wildlife.  With responsible use, this phenomenal new conservation area will provide habitat protection and recreational access for generations to come. Learn more.

Guemes Mountain Conservation Area, Skagit County
Skagit Land Trust & San Juan Preservation Trust

Guemes Mountain is the highest point on Guemes Island. It features stunning views of the San Juan Islands, Mount Baker, the North Cascades, and the Skagit flats. The mountain’s unique prairie habitat features a wide variety of flowering flora, wetlands and maturing forest. The 80-acre Conservation Area is surrounded by larger 540-acre area of protected private and public lands. An unprecedented partnership between Skagit Land Trust, San Juan Preservation Trust, and the residents of Guemes Island came together to protect the area. Learn more.

Horse Lake Reserve, Chelan County
Chelan Douglas Land Trust

Horse Lake Ranch boasts 360 degree views that showcase rich agricultural land, salmon bearing rivers, and dramatic geology. Comprised of two former homesteads, Horse Lake has outstanding habitat for mule deer, elk, upland game birds, and reptiles. The Chelan-Douglas Land Trust has preserved this piece of local heritage, forever. Learn more.