What is a conservation easement and how do Land Trusts use them to conserve private property?
A conservation easement is a legal agreement that permanently protects land from various types of development. The easement spells out the correct and incorrect uses for that land based on its owner’s conservation values. Each one is written to be unique, and specific for each plot of land. Donors of conservation easements maintain ownership over their property and subsequent owners will also retain ownership of the area.
Some people worry that a conservation easement may put them at the mercy of the government. What if the government changes their mind? Do they even have a stake in the land now? Don’t worry. A conservation easement does not let the government control how the land is used. In fact, in regards to the government, conservation easements are quite positive. They can be written off as a charitable contribution and any landowner can deduct the value of the easement from their income taxes for a set number of years. However, due to the fact that the land can no longer be developed, a conservation easement can lower the appraisal value of a property.
Below, please find examples taken from the Montana Land Reliance website that outlines the uses for a conservation easement:
The following are general examples of the types of uses that can be allowed by a conservation easement:
- Continued agricultural and silvicultural use
- Construction of buildings, fences, water improvements, etc., necessary for agriculture and compatible with conservation objectives
- Sale, devise, gifting or other method of transferring parcels, subject to terms of the easement
- Landowner control of access
- Additional family and employee residences compatible with conservation objectives
- Wildlife and fisheries protection, restoration and enhancement projects
- Any and all uses not specifically prohibited
Types of uses that are generally restricted by a conservation easement include:
- Subdivision for residential or commercial activities
- Construction of non-agricultural buildings
- Nonagricultural commercial activities
- Dumping of non-compostable or toxic waste
- Surface mining
A conservation easement assigns three "positive rights" to MLR:
- The right to preserve and protect the property according to mutually agreed upon terms.
- The right (with proper advance notification to the landowner) to enter the property to monitor activities (usually once a year).
- The right to "enjoin and restore," which assures that the landowner's desires, as spelled out in the easement, are enforceable.
The terms of the easement do not in any way negate or modify state or federal law. Specifically, a conservation easement cannot prevent condemnation.
In general, a conservation easement is a great weapon for private property owners who want to conserve their land, the homes they grew up in, and the Montana views they have come to know and love. These easements, although they can initially drop the property value because the land cannot be developed, can do so much to keep the value of a property high. An emptier neighborhood, a unique landscape, or even a historical tract can do a lot to raise the value of any home.