Conservation Easements

 

Conservation Easements

A conservation easement is a recorded, legal agreement between landowners and a land trust that places restrictions on the use of the land to protect its conservation values. The land trust is responsible for enforcing those restrictions in perpetuity.

Conservation easements range from restrictions limiting residential or commercial use of the land to those that state the land will remain forever wild. The title stays in the landowner’s name and the land may be used as before, leased, sold, or passed along to the landowner’s heirs; always, however subject to the restrictions of the easement.

 

Most conservation easements are voluntary donations and benefit the public by protecting important conservation values on special land.

  • Each conservation easement is specifically tailored to address the needs and desires of the landowner, and to protect the identified conservation values of the land.

 

  • The easement is recorded with the title to the property, ensuring protection forever, since all future owners will be subject to the easement’s restrictions.

 

  • The land trust does not own the land under a conservation easement; however, the long-term role of the Trust is to assume the responsibility and legal right, through its Stewardship Fund, to enforce the terms of the agreement forever. The land trust usually asks for a tax-deductible contribution from the easement donor to offset the cost of future stewardship expenses.

 

  • The property remains in private ownership, and within the conditions of the easement can be otherwise used as before, leased, sold, or passed on to heirs.

 

  • An easement in no way grants public access to property unless so desired by the owner or the primary purpose of the conservation easement is for recreation

 

Whatcom Land Trust does not usually purchase conservation easements; however, the land trust works with willing landowners with lands that have outstanding conservation values and wish to conserve their land by donating conservation easements.

 

Conservation Easements FAQs

 

Q: What is a conservation easement?

A:  A Conservation Easement is a voluntary agreement between a property owner and a land trust in which the land owner donates to the land trust specific property rights in exchange for the land trust’s commitment to protect the conservation values of the property forever. The land owner retains ownership of the land with the ability to sell it or pass it on to heirs, and may receive an income tax benefit from the easement donation.

 

Q: Does “conserving” land mean giving up individual rights and/or land ownership?

A:  The Whatcom Land Trust accepts gifts of conservation easements from land owners. Property owners retain the ownership of their property, but may give development rights, timber rights or other types of conservation interests to the Whatcom Land Trust in order to protect a specific or combination of conservation values. A conservation easement allows you to continue to own your land, use your land, pass your land down to heirs, or sell it. The easement simply assures that the natural qualities and resources bestowed by your land will be protected forever.

 

Q: How does a conservation easement work?

A:  Each Conservation Easement is unique to the site and the owner’s personal wishes. A single feature can be preserved, development can be limited or the entire landscape may be conserved. For an example, you might want to give up the right to build additional residences while retaining the right to grow crops. Future owners will be bound by the terms of the easement. The Land Trust is responsible for ensuring that the terms of the easement are honored.  Other landowners may wish to limit development, protect key wildlife habitat features, but retain the right to continually selectively harvest timber protecting a sustainable working forest.

 

Q: What kind of property qualifies for a conservation easement?

A:  Any property with conservation value can be protected by a conservation easement. This includes wetlands, forests, farms, wildlife habitat, beaches, scenic areas, recreational land, historic areas and property with educational, scientific, or cultural value.

 

Q: Does a conservation easement allow public access?

A:  Land owners who grant easements are not required to open their property to the public. Some landowners choose to give the public limited access rights, such as fishing or hiking – others choose not to allow public access.

 

Q: How long does a conservation easement last?

A:  A conservation easement lasts in perpetuity. Title to the land may change, but the easement remains.

 

Q: Can a conservation easement be modified?

A:  Conservation easements can only be amended to strengthen the conservation values of the easement. For example, a landowner may have donated a conservation easement that retained the right to build an additional house, but now choose to eliminate that right.

 

Q: Are there any tax benefits to a conservation easement?

A:  When a landowner donates an easement, the IRS considers the donation a charitable gift, and this may reduce ones federal taxes. Additionally, property taxes may be reduced depending on how the value of the land is altered by the donation.

 

Q:  What is Conservation Easement Stewardship Fund contribution?

A:  Whatcom Land Trust maintains dedicated stewardship funds adequate to meet the long-term obligation of conservation easement stewardship.  The land trust requests a contribution to the Stewardship Fund from each easement donor. The amount requested is determined by an assessment of the individual easement.

 

Q:  What is Mortgage Subordination?

A:  When a mortgage holder subordinates a mortgage to a conservation easement, they agree to allow the conservation easement to be first in the chain of title, so that in the event of a foreclosure, the integrity of the conservation easement remains intact.  Accepting a conservation easement on a property subject to a pre-existing mortgage is a problem because if the lender ever forecloses on the mortgage and takes title to the property, the easement may be extinguished. The only solution is to have the lender subordinate its rights to the property to the rights of the easement holder. WLT will not accept an easement on a mortgaged property unless the holder of the mortgage agrees to subordinate.

 

What is an AG PDR Conservation Easement?

The loss of farmland throughout the country has become an increasing concern in recent years.  One of the multiple conservation tools used to protect agricultural lands is the conservation easement.  While many farmers cannot afford to donate a conservation easement, the Purchase of Development Rights (PDR) conservation easements compensates the farmer for foregoing development potential and limits the uses of property in order to protect fertile soils so they remain available to grow food and fiber.  The limitations established by these agricultural protection conservation easement apply to all future owners of the property, thus preserving farms and ranches forever.

Since 2002, WLT has been in partnership with Whatcom County to establish a local Agricultural PDR Program to conserve farmland.  WLT co-holds AG PDR easements with the county and is responsible for the stewardship of the conservation easements.  Whatcom County runs the Agricultural PDR Program.

Farmland preservation provides for a host of benefits including economic, environmental, food security and cultural.

Some of the benefits of the voluntary Agricultural PDR Program:

  • The farms remain in production and in private ownership
  • The farmer receives compensation for giving up development potential
  • The farmers may sell, lease or pass-on the farm

 

The primary purpose of Whatcom County’s Purchase of Development Rights program is to establish a voluntary agricultural PDR program for Whatcom County which will enhance the protection of the county’s farmland, enhance the long-term viability of the agricultural enterprises within the county and provide public benefits by retaining properties in permanent resource use.