Conservation Easements

Introduction

Pine TreesNatural and agricultural lands are in high demand as the pressure to convert these areas to residential and/or commercial uses continues to increase. There are many compelling reasons, however, to conserve natural and agricultural lands. These include issues related to quality of life, traditional rural lifestyles, aesthetic values, significant economic contributions to the state, and even national food supply. Private lands also play a crucial role in the conservation of wildlife populations throughout the Southeast.

A conservation easement is a legal agreement to limit the amount of development on a property. Essentially, a conservation easement is an agreement between a landowner and a land trust, government agency, or other entity that maintains land in agricultural and/or natural uses to protect the owner's agricultural and/or conservation interests. Private landowners may wish to consider donating or selling some of these rights. These decisions may be economic, personal, or both.

Conservation easements offer great flexibility. Each conservation easement is unique and typically customized in consultations between the landowner and the partner organization. It is a legal agreement designed to consider both the landowner's needs and the conservation objectives. For example, conservation easements may be designed to allow continued farming or ranching activities, hunting, and other recreational uses. An easement might apply to just a portion of the property. In most cases, conservation easements are perpetual, so any land use restrictions remain if the land is sold or passed on to heirs. Typically, these future development rights are restricted and are recorded on the deed.

Conservation easements are managed by federal, state, and local governmental agencies as well as non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Although conservation easements are essentially similar in principle, different organizations may have different priorities depending upon their mission, and these priorities will influence the type and degree of land use restrictions required in the easement. For example, some organizations may prioritize the protection of large natural areas, while the goal of others may be to maintain agricultural lands in production.  To locate a land trust organization near you, visit the Land Trust Alliance.

Financial Benefits

Pine TreesEconomic decisions strongly influence land use decisions. But personal values also influence how private landowners make decisions on their own land. Many landowners realize the strong ecological or agricultural value of their land and wish to legally protect it from being converted or zoned for other purposes.

Various types of financial benefits are available with conservation easements. Easements may result in direct payments, tax relief, and reduction of estate taxes when passing land to heirs.

Four potential tax savings are associated with donating a conservation easement: income tax, real property tax, federal gift and estate tax, and estate tax exclusion.  See the Land Trust Alliance website and “Conservation Options for Private Landowners in Florida” for more information.

The New Tax Incentive

TaxesCongress recently passed a new law to enhance the tax benefits of donating a voluntary conservation agreement. This donation can be one of the smartest ways to conserve important natural, historic, or agricultural resources and protect America’s natural heritage. Landowners will maintain their private property rights and potentially realize significant federal tax benefits at the same time.

These new incentives make it easier for average Americans--including working family farmers and ranchers--to donate land. The legislation:

  • Raises the maximum deduction donors may take from 30% of their income in any year to 50%,
  • Enables qualifying farmers and ranchers to deduct up to 100% of their adjusted gross income, and
  • Allows donors to take deductions for their contribution for a maximum of sixteen years.

These changes allow many modest-income landowners to deduct much more than they could under the old rules, bringing increased fairness to the tax code. Part of the law also tightens appraisal standards, which had sometimes been abused by landowners collaborating with appraisers to unfairly increase their deductions.

The Land Trust Alliance (LTA)--a national organization that promotes voluntary private land conservation--is providing updates on the new law on their website. Landowners should always get personalized legal and accounting advice before making land conservation decisions.

Organizations

Many public and private land trust organizations participate in conservation easement, land donation, and charitable sale of land programs. Determining who these organizations are is time consuming and frustrating for private landowners. For a list of organizations in your area, visit the Land Trust Alliance website.  Further organizations and resources exist to help landowners manage their land for wildlife and protection of natural resources (see “Conservation Options for Private Landowners in Florida”).