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Conservation Easements

Conservation easements can provide considerable protection for lands with high biodiversity value. They are most commonly used when outright donation or sale of property to an appropriate entity is not preferred.

Conservation easements allow the property owner to retain ownership of the land and often receive property tax deductions, while legally assuring that the land will be preserved. Conservation easements can either be donated or sold.

A conservation easement is a binding agreement and transfer of certain property rights between the private landowner and another party, the “holder.” Conservation easements restrict the type and amount of development that can take place on the land, often extinguishing development rights completely.

Easements are recorded on the deed and therefore “run with the land,” applying to both the present and all future owners.

Restrictions are placed on the property to retain the natural, scenic, historical, or open space characteristics of the land.

Conservation easements work by separating the development rights of the land from the land itself. Easements are a highly flexible conservation option. Restrictions placed on the property can be tailored to the needs of the landowner and the unique natural attributes of the property.

To set up a conservation easement, a “holder” or “grantee” must be identifiedas the willing recipient responsible for oversight of the terms. This needs to be a government agency or a private conservation organization such as a non-profit land trust that is interested in preserving the land.

It is the holder’s responsibility to ensure that present and subsequent owners of the property abide by the terms of the easement. They monitor the property and enforce the easement restrictions if necessary.

An easement may be placed on all or part of the property. For example, an easement may be used to protect only the wetlands portion of a property, while the property owner retains the ability to develop the rest of the land.

Often easements are used to acquire a particular feature or enhance the protection of privately owned land adjacent to parks or other protected natural, scenic, or wildlife areas. Conservation easements for wetlands are most effective when they include some adjacent property to form a buffer against non-compatible uses and impacts.

The property owner retains full right to sell the property. The land under easement is transferred with the title of the property when the land is sold or otherwise changes ownership. To the extent that subdivision is allowed, the conservation easement will continue to affect all the land.

Even if land use regulations change, conservation easements and their accompanying restrictions remain in place. While political administrations come and go, easements remain.

There are economic benefits for entering into an easement. A conservation easement may reduce the market value of the land to the extent that it limits development and potential use. A reduction in the market value will reduce the land’s assessed value, which may reduce property and estate taxes.

In addition, in the case of a donated easement, the landowner would be able to claim the donated value as a charitable contribution for income tax purposes.

Read about how two Thurston County landowners used a conservation easement to help preserve their family farm.

More information about conservation easements can be found on the websites of the Land Trust Alliance and The Nature Conservancy.

The American Farmland Trust has recently released four reports about what makes a successful agricultural easement program.

Federal programs that encourage conservation easements include:

> Farm and Ranchlands Protection Program (FRPP)
> Grassland Reserve Program (GRP)
> Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP)
> Forest Legacy Program

State programs that encourage conservation easements include:

> Farmland Preservation Grant Program
> Riparian Habitat Protection Grant Program
> Salmon Recovery Funding Board (SRFB)
> Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program (WWRP)
> Forest Riparian Easement Program (FREP)
> Riparian Open Space Program

Local programs that encourage conservation easements include:

> Conservation Futures

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