Conservation easements are the most secure tools available to landowners for protecting rural lands. Conservation easements are perpetual restrictions on subdivision, development, and other land uses, tailored to the agricultural, forestry, recreational and ecological goals of the landowner.
These restrictions are negotiated and enforced by non-profit organizations known as land trusts, or by public agencies.
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
In return for donating a qualified conservation easement, a landowner may claim an income tax deduction based on the value of the rights he gives up. The reduction in land value associated with a conservation easement also can lower estate and gift taxes, helping families pass their land intact to the next generation. All these values are substantiated by a qualified appraiser.
There are numerous sites on the Web with extensive information about conservation easements. We particularly recommend the Land Trust Alliance (the national umbrella organization for land trusts). If you have further questions about conservation easements, please contact us.
Selling a Conservation Easement
Many landowners are “land-rich” but “cash-poor,” and as a result benefit little from income tax deductions associated with the gift of a conservation easement. As part of their land use and estate planning, some landowners seek to sell a conservation easement, which is negotiated and granted to a land trust organization or public agency.
Landowners may be able to obtain some compensation from public grants or private donations for the grant of a conservation easement. The South Carolina Conservation Bank purchases conservation land and easements throughout the state. Charleston County’s Greenbelt Bank provides additional funding for conserving land in Charleston County.
A small market for purchased conservation easements is supported by government agencies. The US Fish and Wildlife Service at times has money in its Partners for Wildlife Program and its NAWCA program to purchase easements on wetlands and associated uplands.
Each land trust organization has a different character, which is reflected in their easement documents. The Nature Conservancy emphasizes biological diversity. The terms of a Nature Conservancy easement often include specific protections for vulnerable plant and animal communities. Ducks Unlimited specializes in wetland and recreation properties, providing expertise in wetland and game management. Local land trusts, such as the Lowcountry Open Land Trust, write easements to maintain the traditional land uses that define the character of the Lowcountry.