Conservation easements are voluntary agreements that allow individuals or groups to limit the type or amount of development on their property to achieve certain conservation purposes. A conservation easement can cover all or just part of a property and can be either permanent or temporary. Easements typically focus on specific land uses, such as agriculture, forest, historic properties and open space.
Easements can relieve property owners of the burden of managing these areas. They shift responsibility to a private organization (land trust) or government agency that may be in a better position to take responsibility for management and compliance issues associated with the property. In some cases, property owners might realize tax benefits by placing conservation easements on some or all of their property.
Conservation easements allow property owners to conserve natural areas that may otherwise be developed
Conservation easements may indirectly help protect water quality. Land that property owners set aside in a permanent conservation easement has a prescribed set of uses or activities that generally restrict future development. Often, this limits impervious surface development and preserves an area’s natural hydrology.
Owners can evaluate the location of their land held in a conservation easement to determine its relative ability to provide water quality benefits. Property along stream corridors and shorelines can act as a vegetated buffer that filters out pollutants from stormwater discharge. The ability of a conservation easement to function as a stream buffer depends on the width of the easement and type and condition of the vegetation within the easement
Why would anyone consider placing a conservation easement on their property?
Conservation easements ensure that land remains in its current state long after the original owners no longer control it. By agreeing to restrict the development rights for a parcel of land, landowners guarantee that it will remain in a prescribed state for a fixed period of time (e.g., 30 years, permanent) while receiving tax benefits. Often, state agencies and private land trusts have specific qualifications for a property before they enter into an easement agreement with landowners. Table 1 contains examples of criteria that private land trusts use to determine if a property is worth managing in a conservation easement.
A conservation easement is not for every landowner, but it is an important financial, tax, and estate and succession planning tool for families to preserve their land and their legacy for future generations.
The conservation easement is a tool to help landowners and conservation organizations or governments work in partnership to achieve conservation objectives. The objectives, and the means for achieving those objectives, will vary depending on the character of the particular property, the goals of the conservation organization and the needs of the landowners. For example, an easement’s objectives might include any one or more of the following:
- Maintain and improve water quality;
- Perpetuate and foster the growth of healthy woodland;
- Maintain and improve wildlife habitat and migration corridors;
- Protect scenic vistas visible from roads and other public areas; or
- Ensure that lands are managed so that they are always available for sustainable agriculture and forestry.
The most distinguishing feature of the conservation easement as a conservation tool is that it enables users to achieve specific conservation objectives on the land while keeping the land in the ownership and control of landowners for uses consistent with the conservation objectives. For example: If a community seeks to ensure that no development will occur near a high quality stream known for its recreational and wildlife values and seeks to ensure that forestry is conducted sustainably and without damaging water supplies, conservation easements may achieve these goals with the landowners still able to generate timber and other revenue from the property.