What is a Land Trust?

A land trust is a nonprofit organization that, as all or part of its mission, actively works to conserve land by undertaking or assisting in land or conservation easement acquisition, or by its stewardship of such land or easements.

Are land trusts government agencies?

No, they are independent, entrepreneurial organizations that work with landowners who are interested in protecting open space. However, land trusts often work cooperatively with government agencies by acquiring or managing land, researching open space needs and priorities, or assisting in the development of open space plans.

What are the advantages of working with a land trust?

Land trusts are very closely tied to the communities in which they operate. They understand the concerns of the community and the needs of the landowners.  Local landscapes differ and have different requirements.  In addition, land trusts’ nonprofit tax status brings a variety of tax benefits. Donations of land, conservation easements or money may qualify you for income or gift tax savings. Since land trusts are private organizations, they can be more flexible and creative in conservation options than the public agencies can be in saving land.

What does a land trust do?

Local and regional land trusts, organized as charitable organizations under federal tax laws, are directly involved in conserving land for its natural, recreational, scenic, historical and productive values. Land trusts can purchase land for permanent protection, or they may use one of several other methods: accept donations of land or the funds to purchase land, accept a bequest, or accept the donation of a conservation easement, which permanently limits the type and scope of development that can take place on the land. In some instances, land trusts also purchase conservation easements.

I first heard about land trusts just a few years ago. Are they new?

Not at all! A very few land trusts have already celebrated their centennials, but most are much younger. In 1950, for example, just 53 land trusts operated in 26 states. Today, more than 1,700 land trusts operate across the country, serving every state in the nation. The Northeast, home of the first land trust, still has the most land trusts – 581, according to the Land Trust Alliance’s most recent National Land Trust Census.

What has contributed to the huge growth in the number of land trusts?

People are tremendously concerned about the unmitigated loss of open space in their own communities. They see subdivisions supplanting the open spaces where they once walked and hiked, and they want to know how they can gain the power to save the green spaces that make their communities unique. So they turn to land trusts as the local entities that have been set up to conserve land.

About Conservation Easements

What is a Conservation Easement?

A conservation easement (sometimes also referred to as a conservation restriction) is a voluntary, legal agreement between a landowner and a land trust or government agency that permanently limits uses of the land in order to protect its conservation values. It allows you to continue to own and use your land and to sell it or pass it on to heirs.

When you donate a conservation easement to a land trust, you give up some of the rights associated with the land. For example, you might give up the right to build additional structures, while retaining the right to grow crops. Future owners also will be bound by the easement’s terms. The land trust is responsible for making sure the easement’s terms are followed on a long-term basis.

Conservation easements offer great flexibility. An easement on property containing rare wildlife habitat might prohibit any development, for example, while one on a farm might allow continued farming and the building of additional agricultural structures. An easement may apply to just a portion of the property, and need not require public access.

A landowner sometimes sells a conservation easement, but usually easements are donated. If the donation benefits the public by permanently protecting important conservation resources and meets other federal tax code requirements it can qualify as a tax-deductible charitable donation. The amount of the donation is the difference between the land’s value with the easement and its value without the easement. Placing an easement on your property may or may not result in property tax savings.

Perhaps most importantly, a conservation easement can be essential for passing land on to the next generation. By removing the land’s development potential, the easement lowers its market value, which in turn lowers the estate tax. Whether the easement is donated during life or by will, it can make a critical difference in the heirs’ ability to keep the land intact.

Why should I grant a conservation easement to a land trust?

People execute a conservation easement because they love their open space land, and want to protect it from inappropriate development while keeping their private ownership of the property. Granting an easement to a conservation organization that qualifies under the Internal Revenue Code as a “public charity” – which nearly all land trusts do – can yield income tax savings. Moreover, land trusts, some of which are more than 100 years old, have the expertise and experience to work with landowners and ensure that the land will remain as permanent open space.

Are conservation easements popular?

They are very popular. In the 5 years between 2000 and 2005, the amount of land protected by local and state land trusts using easements doubled to 6.2 million acres. Landowners have found that conservation easements can be flexible tools, and yet provide a permanent guarantee that the land won’t ever be developed. Conservation easements are used to protect all types of land, including coastlines; farm and ranch land; historical or cultural landscapes; scenic views; streams and rivers; trails; wetlands; wildlife areas; and working forests.

How can a conservation easement be tailored to my needs and wishes?

An easement restricts development to the degree that is necessary to protect the significant conservation values of that particular property. Sometimes this totally prohibits construction, and sometimes it doesn’t. Landowners and land trusts, working together, can write conservation easements that reflect both the landowner’s desires and the need to protect conservation values. Even the most restrictive easements typically permit landowners to continue such traditional uses of the land as farming and ranching.

What steps do I take to write a conservation easement?

First, contact a land trust in your community to become acquainted with the organization and the services they can provide. Explore with them the conservation values you want to protect on the land. Discuss with the land trust what you want to accomplish, and what development rights you may want to retain. For example, you may already have one home on your property and want to preserve the right to build another home. That is one provision that must be specifically written into an easement agreement. Always consult with other family members regarding an easement, and remember that you should consult with your own attorney or financial advisor regarding such a substantial decision.

How long does a conservation easement last?

Most easements “run with the land,” binding the original owner and all subsequent owners to the easement’s restrictions. Only gifts of perpetual easements can qualify for income and estate tax benefits. The easement is recorded at the county or town records office so that all future owners and lenders will learn about the restrictions when they obtain title reports.

What are a land trust’s responsibilities regarding conservation easements?

The land trust is responsible for enforcing the restrictions that the easement document spells out. Therefore, the land trust monitors the property on a regular basis — typically once a year – to determine that the property remains in the condition prescribed by the easement document. The land trust maintains written records of these monitoring visits, which also provide the landowner a chance to keep in touch with the land trust. Many land trusts establish endowments to provide for long-term stewardship of the easements they hold.

For more detailed information on Land Trusts in general, contact visit:   http://www.landtrustalliance.org/

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