LAND TRUSTS AND CONSERVATION EASEMENTS PART I This is Part I of a two-part series discussing the concept of land preservation through conservation easements. Questions about conservation easements can be submitted in writing to the Eastern Soil Conservation District or contact Lavonne Paden at (304) 754-6955 or Lavonne33@aol.com. Make Plans for Your Land Now their land. By taking positive action today, your precious land can be Much of the land in the Eastern safeguarded according to your wishes. Panhandle has been kept open and free The top land protection method that has from development for many years--- emerged in the United States during the perhaps generations. That land has last decade is known as a conservation provided a source of easement. A conser- tranquility and beautiful vation easement can scenery, and maybe even make a critical diff- a source of livelihood, for erence in a family’s its residents. The reality ability to pass land is, however, that as from one generation development pressures to the next. continue to mount in the Eastern Panhandle, it will become more and more What is a difficult to keep large Conservation tracts of land and farms Easement? intact. Even if you are committed to protecting A conservation your land from comm- easement is a legal ercial development or res- agreement a property idential subdivision, your owner makes to heirs may be forced to sell restrict the type and or subdivide your land. amount of develop- Why? Federal estate ment that may take taxes. place on the property. To understand the easement concept, Estate taxes are assessed on think of owning land as holding a bundle the fair market value of the land at its of rights. These rights can include the ‘highest and best use.’ In the eyes of right to build additional buildings, harvest the Internal Revenue Service, this timber, grow crops, mine for minerals, means the value of the land at its subdivide the land, or restrict access, development potential. For large tracts among others. A landowner may sell or of land and farms the value of this give away the whole bundle of rights or development potential can be just one or two of those rights. To give substantial. Your heirs may be forced to away certain rights while retaining sell the land in order to pay the estate others, a property owner grants an taxes on the property—as much as 55% ―easement‖ to an appropriate third party, of the land’s current development value. such as a land trust, a public agency, or As unfair as it may seem, your heirs may a historic preservation society. be forced to sell the land even if they do not want to. Most of us are familiar with easements granted for road access by There are options, however, and others or to allow public utilities to cross people all over the United States are our property. Typically these easements beginning to plan for the preservation of are already included on our deed. Conservation easements, on the other the number and location of structures hand, are voluntary restrictions enacted (usually residences) and the types of by the original landowner and tailored to activities that can take place. that landowner’s specific needs. The easement may be applied to Conservation easements are just a portion of the property or to the typically development rights they are entire property. The easement may permanently ―given up‖ by the landowner allow some additional building even if the on designated portions of the property in property is restricted by an easement, so order to protect the land. that children or grandchildren could reside on the property. Why Grant a Conservation Easement? Consider what makes sense to Landowners have discovered you for your property -- then design the that the use of conservation easements easement. is a powerful and attractive way to protect their land from inappropriate Who Can Grant an Easement and to development while retaining private Whom? ownership. The land continues to be owned by the original landowner. That Any owner of property with landowner may live on the land, sell it or conservation or historic value may grant leave it to heirs. The easement is an easement. Each of the owners of the recorded with the deed so that all future property must consent. If the property is owners will be bound by the restrictions. mortgaged, the lender must also consent to subordinate its interests to the If the landowner has restricted interests of the easement holder. the development potential of the property by a perpetual conservation easement, Easements are typically granted the land must be valued in the estate at to local or regional non-profit land trusts the restricted value. Without the ability whose sole purpose is to safeguard to develop the property either by property conservation values. Conser- subdividing the land for residential vation easements are written up in a development or turning it into a detailed agreement, and the land trust commercial development, the land is takes on the permanent responsibility simply valued as the landowner wishes it and the legal right to enforce the terms to remain – as a farm or open land. of the agreement. By granting a conservation In Summary easement in perpetuity, the owner can be assured that the value of the land will A conservation easement is designed be protected indefinitely, no matter who by you and represents your positive the future owners are. decision to protect your property. How Restrictive is an Easement? The easement reduces the fair market value of the property by restricting future The beauty of a conservation development. By restricting the potential easement is that it is a flexible tool for future development, the estate value designed to protect the conservation and any resultant estate taxes are also values of the specific property, while at reduced. the same time meeting the personal desires and financial goals of the The easement is perpetual – any future landowners. Since each piece of owners of your property will be bound by property is unique, the conservation the easement. easements tailored by the landowner would also be unique. Generally, the Next month: A conservation easement most important limitations are made on example and working with a land trust.