Conservation Easements

From the Land Trust Alliance

The most traditional tool for conserving private land, a “conservation easement” (also known as a conservation restriction) 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.

When you donate a conservation easement to a land trust, you give up some of the rights associated with the land. For example, you might give up the right to build additional structures, while retaining the right to grow crops. Future owners also will be bound by the easement’s terms. The land trust is responsible for making sure the easement’s terms are followed. This is managed through “stewardship” by the land trust.

Conservation easements offer great flexibility. An easement on property containing rare wildlife habitat might prohibit any development, for example, 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.

Qualifying For A Tax Deduction

A landowner sometimes sells a conservation easement, but usually easements are donated to a land trust. If the donation benefits the public by permanently protecting important conservation resources, and meets other federal tax code requirements, it can qualify as a tax-deductible charitable donation. Easement values vary greatly; in general, the highest easement values result from very restrictive conservation easements on tracts of developable open space under intense development pressure. In some jurisdictions, placing an easement on your property may also result in property tax savings.

The 2008 Farm Bill extended tax incentive legislation that applies to a landowner’s federal income tax and will:

  • Raise the deduction a donor can take for donating a voluntary conservation agreement from 30% of their income in any year to 50%;
  • Allow farmers and ranchers to deduct up to 100% of their income; and
  • Increase the number of years over which a donor can take deductions from 6 to 16 years.

Reducing Estate Taxes

Perhaps the most important benefit, a conservation easement can be essential for passing undeveloped land on to the next generation. By removing the land’s development potential, the easement typically lowers the property’s market value, which in turn lowers potential estate tax. Whether the easement is donated during life or by will, it can make a critical difference in one’s heirs’ ability to keep the land intact.

Additional Resources

2008 Farm Bill

Land Trust Alliance

The Value of Conservation Easements by World Resources Institute, for the West Hill Foundation for Nature

OpenSpace America

 Documenting and Protecting Biodiversity on Land Trust Projects by Christopher R. Wilson

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