What is a Conservation Easement?
A conservation easement is a voluntary legal agreement between a landowner and a land trust (or other qualified organization) in which the landowner places restrictions on the use of his or her property in order to protect the natural values of the land. The easement becomes a permanent part of the title, recorded with the County Clerk, and protects the land forever. Future owners must comply with the terms of the easement.
It has also been explained as property coming with a "bundle" of rights, which includes development rights, which can be separated from the "bundle" and be restricted forever.
What restrictions can be included in a conservation easement?
The easement can include any restrictions agreed to by the Davie Area Land Trust and the landowner. Development may be prohibited, or limited to less sensitive portions of the property. Easements could permit continued use of the property as a nursery, farm, or equestrian facility, in addition to being able to preserve a scenic vista, wildlife sanctuary, stand of trees, or any other attribute that is seen as valuable and worth preserving.
What rights and responsibilities does the landowner retain?
The landowner retains all other rights over the property including the right to sell, lease, transfer, or mortgage. The landowner can use the land in any way that is consistent with the easement. In most cases, the easement does not give the public the right to enter the property.
What are the benefits to the landowner in donating a conservation easement?
1. Income taxes: The donation of an easement to the Davie Area Land Trust will be a charitable contribution. The Davie Land Trust is a 501(c)(3). The difference in the fair market value of the property before and after the restrictions determine the value of the gift. This charitable gift can be deducted from income for federal and state income tax purposes, as long as certain IRS conditions are met.
2. Estate taxes: If a landowner dies, the estate taxes on the property will be lower if the fair market value of the property is lower. This will usually be the case if the right to develop the property is restricted, and it would not be unusual for the major part of the value of the property to be the potential for development. This may make the difference between an heir being able to keep the land or having to sell it to pay the estate taxes.
3. Property taxes: If your real property assessor determines that market value of your property is reduced because of the restrictions, the property taxes will be lower. The property may be protected from substantial tax increases resulting from subsequent neighboring developments.
4. Peace of mind: Because each conservation easement is written in accordance with the landowner's wishes for future use of the land, the greatest reward for most landowners is the knowledge that their land's special features will be protected.
Benefits for our community
Preserving undeveloped land helps to retain the character of our communities. Agricultural and undeveloped land, open spaces, natural areas, and scenic vistas are vital to the economic and environmental well-being of rural and suburban areas like ours. Permanently protected land aids communities in planning for future service needs. Conservation easements provide these public benefits at a fraction of the cost of outright purchases of land by a community.
While zoning and public land ownership can accomplish some land use goals, the gift of a conservation easement enables the private landowner to make a contribution to the community that will last forever.
How does the Davie Area Land Trust fulfill its obligations?
The Davie Area Land Trust specializes in helping landowners design land protection plans that meet the owners' desires. While the landowner is responsible for upholding the restrictions of a conservation easement, the Land Trust is responsible for enforcement, and monitors each property at least once a year. The gift of an easement should, if possible, be accompanied by a contribution to the Land Trust's stewardship endowment to fund the monitoring of the easement. This ensures our ability to meet our obligation to the donor to uphold the easement forever. The Land Trust, as holder of the easement, has a limited right of access for inspection. In unusual circumstances, an easement may specify additional rights and responsibilities.
Implications for landowners
Landowners are bound by an easement's restrictions, forever, so we advise landowners to consult an attorney and a tax advisor before donating.