Conservation Easements

What is a conservation easement?

A conservation easement excludes certain activities on private land, such as commercial development or residential subdivisions. Its main goal is to conserve natural or man-made resources on the land. The easement is usually described in terms of the resource it is designed to protect, such as agricultural, forest, historic, or open space easements.

A conservation easement is a voluntary agreement between a landowner and a qualified conservation organization or public entity to prevent the development of a property while allowing continued private ownership and rural use such as farming or forestry.  Conservation easements are typically perpetual but they can be for shorter terms in some cases.

When a landowner enters their property into a conservation easement they surrender some or all of their rights to develop the property as well as the right to most industrial uses of the property such as mining. The landowner retains all the other rights of private ownership such as the right to sell the property or leave it to their heirs. Conservation easements do not allow public access to the property. Easement agreements may allow for limited subdivision of the property and the construction of residences. Conservation easements typically allow for sustainable farming and forestry practices including the construction of roads and buildings.

The greatest strength of conservation easements is that they are different for every property, taking into account the needs of the individual landowner and the conservation values of the specific property.

The monetary value of a conservation easement is equal to the difference between the appraised value of the property before the easement and the appraised value of the property after the development rights are surrendered. Easement value is largely dependant on the development potential of the property and how restrictive the easement agreement is.

Who can grant a conservation easement?

A conservation easement is a voluntary land-protection tool. The property owner is the only one who can decide to place a conservation easement on their property. If a property is owned by several individuals, all owners must agree to place the easement. If the property is mortgaged, the mortgage holder must also be in agreement for the easement to be placed.

Is land under a conservation easement considered public property?

Land covered by a conservation easement is still privately held land, with the only restrictions on land use being those desired by the owner who places the easement on the property. Easements can restrict or permit certain public uses of the land and do not have to permit public access at all. The decision to allow public access is left to the individual property owner who places the easement on the property.

Who holds the easement?

A conservation easement is designed to protect a property according to the owner's wishes for the future use of the land. Since the easement is generally granted in perpetuity, it is necessary for an outside party to be responsible for the monitoring and maintenance of the easement. The outside party "holds" the easement and is required to monitor and enforce the adherence of current and future property owners to the terms of the easement.

Typically, easements are held by local government agencies, land trusts or other nonprofit organizations designed to hold them. Since the monitoring and maintenance of easements requires personnel inputs in perpetuity, easement donors often are required to provide financial support for the easement if it is held by a nonprofit organization. Designating both a government agency and a nonprofit or land trust as co-holders of the easement is an alternative selected in many easements and may be required in certain public programs wherein the easements are purchased by a government preservation program or organization.

What are the responsibilities of the easement holder?

The holder has the responsibility to enforce the requirements stipulated in the easement. This responsibility generally includes:

  1. Establishing baseline documentation through ensuring that the language of the easement is clear and enforceable, developing maps, property descriptions and baseline documentation of the property's characteristics.
  2. Monitoring the use of the land on a regular basis. Personal visits to the property may be required to ensure that easement restrictions are being upheld.
  3. Providing information and background data regarding the easement to new or prospective property owners.
  4. Establishing a review and approval process for land activities stipulated in easement.
  5. Enforcing the restrictions of the easement through the legal system if necessary.
  6. Maintaining property/easement related records.

Last modified: Thursday, 06-Nov-2014 10:24:40 EST