A conservation easement, also known as a conservation restriction, is a legal agreement between a landowner and a government agency or land trust that permanently limits uses of a tract of land in order to protect its conservation values.  The conservation easement is recorded in the county’s official books of deeds and other real property interests and runs with the land.

This approach to land conservation is an effective and more affordable means of allowing landowners to hold and use their property because it permanently removes specified development rights, usually in exchange for tax benefits.

In most instances, a conservation easement is a legal tool used to prevent a piece of land from being used or developed in certain capacities often related to a specific purpose such as the protection of wetlands, naturally flowing streams, lakeshore, or drinking-water supplies. Conservation easements can restrict a broad range of activities such as commercial development, subdivisions for housing, industrial uses, clearing, grading, and paving.  These prohibitions can include the construction of non-agricultural buildings, non-agricultural uses, surface mining, the dumping of toxic or non-compostable waste, and the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.  The types of land that most commonly benefit from conservation easements include wildlife habitats, agricultural land, historic sites, scenic open spaces, stream corridors, and timber and woodland resources.

Conservation easements may be deemed practical for two primary reasons:

  • Landowners may, in some cases, acquire federal and state tax deductions or credits due to the permanent conservation of undeveloped land. When a conservation easement is considered as a charitable gift under federal requirements, for instance, then the easement donor may be entitled to an estate or income tax reduction.
  • Wetlands and streams are valuable to land developers who must mitigate their destruction by permanently preserving similar lands from development through conservation easements. Farm and timberland owners sometimes find it advantageous to place lands under conservation easements in order to sell the wetlands and streams credits to developers under the rules of environmental agencies.

While a conservation easement prohibits a landowner from utilizing the land in specific ways, the land is not necessarily made public, but rather, often remains under private control.

Conservation easement terms may vary from moderately restrictive to very restrictive, depending on the intent of the landowner.  Drinking-water supplies, for instance, are more strictly protected than hydropower lakes. Conservation easements offer flexibility yet still allow landowners to own and use their land, as well as sell it or pass it on to the next of kin.

When a conservation easement is donated to a land trust, some rights associated with the land are given up. Future landowners will also be bound by the terms of the easement. The land trust is then held liable for ensuring that all of the easement’s terms are followed.

No two conservation easements are alike, as each one is tailored specifically to the unique characteristics of the land and the owners’ conservation desires. If you need assistance with negotiating conservation easements or navigating the complex tax issues arising from conservation easements, call James B. Griffin, LLC at 205-873-2113 today.