Landowners who want to protect their land well into the future can enter into a conservation easement with a land trust, government agency, tribe or other qualified organization. Conservation easements offer effective and flexible protection, and are one of the most frequently used tools for conserving private land. This voluntary legal agreement protects the land by permanently limiting some uses that would compromise the conservation values or the landowners’ goals for the property. It allows landowners to own, use, bequeath, or sell their land. Each conservation easement is specifically designed to protect the conservation values of each property and meet the goals of the landowner and easement holder – typically a land trust. As a result, no two conservation easements are alike. Conservation easements offer great flexibility. For example, an easement on property containing rare wildlife habitat might prohibit any development, while an easement on a farm might allow continued farming and the addition of agricultural structures. An easement may apply to all or a portion of the property and need not require public access.
Conservation easements are based on the idea that when people own land, they own rights that go with the property – such as the right to graze cattle, hunt, build a home, subdivide or extract minerals. By voluntarily limiting some of these activities, a conservation easement allows a landowner to retain private ownership while also achieving other goals, like protecting a farming or ranching operation, preserving open space or conserving habitat for wildlife. Typically, a conservation easement limits subdivision and non-agricultural, commercial uses. Most conservation easements allow continued grazing, fencing, irrigation, hunting or other traditional land uses that are consistent with the conservation values of the property. Conservation easements do not require public access. As a legal agreement, a conservation easement is attached to the property’s deed and recorded with the county. Easements are granted in perpetuity, meaning that all future owners of the land must respect the uses set forth in the document. The land trust or other easement holder is responsible for making sure the terms of the easement are followed. This is managed through “stewardship” by the land trust or easement holder.
Why Donate or Sell a Conservation Easement?
Landowners choose to donate or sell conservation easements for a variety of reasons. Often, the decision comes from the landowner’s connection to their land, and their desire to see it remain intact and used for agriculture, open space or wildlife habitat into the future. Many people also want to ensure that their children can inherit their property in its entirety. Estate taxes may be lowered by reducing the land’s appraised value through a conservation easement, which often means that the family can inherit the land without having to subdivide it to pay the estate tax. Conservation easements are powerful estate planning tools that can help keep land in the family.
While available funds for the purchase of conservation easements are limited, land trusts have been very successful at raising the necessary funds for properties with considerable natural resource values. There are other financial benefits as well. For example, landowners may qualify for significant income tax deductions by donating conservation easements to a land trust or other qualified organization.
Conservation easements are truly win-win agreements:
- Landowners win by conserving their land and gaining potential tax benefits, while retaining ownership of the property and keeping it in production.
- Wildlife wins because habitat is conserved.
- Future generations win by maintaining scenic rural landscapes and the opportunity to inherit and use the land.
__________________________________________________ California Civil Code 815.3 defines qualified entities as:
(a) A tax-exempt nonprofit organization qualified under Section 501(c(3) of the Internal Revenue Code and qualified to do business in this state which has as its primary purpose the preservation, protection, or enhancement of land in its natural, scenic, historical, agricultural, forested, or open-space condition or use.
(b) The state or any city, county, city and county, district, or other state or local governmental entity, if otherwise authorized to acquire and hold title to real property and if the conservation easement is voluntarily conveyed. No local governmental entity may condition the issuance of an entitlement for use on the applicant’s granting of a conservation easement pursuant to this chapter.
(c) A federally recognized California Native American tribe or a nonfederally recognized California Native American tribe that is on the contact list maintained by the Native American Heritage Commission to protect a California Native American prehistoric, archaeological, cultural, spiritual, or ceremonial place, if the conservation easement is voluntarily conveyed.