What is a conservation easement?
A conservation easement is a practical way for private landowners to protect environmentally significant land while retaining ownership of the land. Easements provide permanent protection from land use that could damage or destroy its scenic, recreational, ecological and natural resource values.
In most cases, the landowner donates an easement to a non-profit conservation organization or public agency, which enforces the restrictions in perpetuity. Each easement is tailored to fit the natural characteristics of the land, the personal needs of the owners, and the objectives of the organization or agency.
An added benefit to the landowner may be a substantial income tax deduction from donating the easement. The landowner may also gain a reduction in estate taxes after donating certain qualified easements.
How is my land ownership affected by a conservation easement?
A conservation easement is a legal agreement between a landowner (the grantor) and a conservation organization or agency (the grantee). The agreement separates the rights to exercise more intensive uses – such as construction, subdivision, and mining – from other rights of ownership. The “development rights” are then transferred to the grantee through the conservation easement deed. The grantee agrees to hold –but not to use– the development rights and to ensure that they are not used by anyone else
Conservation easements are granted in perpetuity and apply to the land regardless of who may own it in the future. Land under easement is still privately owned and managed. Typically, it is used for agriculture, forestry, wildlife habitat, scenic views, watershed protection, recreation, education, or personal residence. The landowner and the grantee work together to determine the appropriate land uses, which are then detailed in the easement instrument.
Does granting a conservation easement give the public the right to enter my land?
No, unless you allow it. Landowners might give the public rights to cross the property as part of the easement agreement. This right is usually granted when part of the land traditionally has been used as a public trail or as an access point to a public pond or lake.
Does the easement restrict my ability to sell, devise, or give my land in the future?
No. Land protected by easement can be sold, given, or otherwise transferred at any time without affecting the integrity or enforceability of the easement. This is one of the key benefits to protecting land through a conservation easement.
How are conservation easements enforced?
The grantee organization or agency must monitor easement-protected land at least once a year to ensure that restrictions have not been violated. In addition, the grantee carefully monitors the records and photographs that document the condition and use of the property.
If the grantee discovers a violation during the monitoring, the organization immediately notifies the landowner and takes steps to halt the violation and rectify any damages. Specific procedures for this enforcement are outlined in the easement document. Another organization often is given back-up or executory interest in the easement, in order to prevent violations if the grantee becomes unable to carry out its responsibilities.