Conservation Easements - How to Protect Natural Areas and Get a Tax Break, Too
The use of conservation easements to protect private land from development has become increasingly popular in the last decade. In
the United States, more than 17,000 easements currently protect more than 5 million acres of open space, including forests, farms,
and ranches. In addition to protecting valuable natural areas, these easements can offer numerous tax benefits to the landowner.
Conservation easements can take many forms and are granted in order to achieve a variety of objectives. Common uses of conservation
easements include wildlife corridors, which connect habitat that has been fragmented by human development, and protection of natural
areas deemed critical or irreplaceable.
In essence, a conservation easement is a legal agreement between a landowner (the grantor) and a land trust or government entity (the grantee). The agreement restricts land use and development on a specific parcel in order to preserve in perpetuity its natural state and conservation values. The agreement gives the right of enforcement of the restrictions to the grantee, and conveys to the grantee the responsibility of stewardship of the easement. Typically, landowners are compensated for giving up their development rights, either directly if the easement is sold, or through income tax deductions equal to the difference between the land value with the easement and the value without it. In order to qualify as tax-deductible, an easement must benefit the public through permanent protection of valuable natural resources in addition to meeting other federal tax code requirements.
A conservation easement is usually binding on all heirs and assigns, meaning that all subsequent owners of the conserved property are legally bound by the terms of the easement. The landowner must abide by the land use restrictions, but still retains ownership, including the right to sell, give, or will the property to anyone he or she wishes. In addition to the tax savings mentioned above, the cost of passing the land on to future generations will in most cases be lowered. This is due to the reduction in estate taxes that occurs because the market value of the property with the easement in place is decreased. A common misconception is that conservation easements are rigid, inflexible, and prohibit all types of future development . In fact, easements can be tailored to the individual needs of both the owner and the property. For example, conservation easements on farms and ranches can be designed so that property owners are still able to build necessary agricultural or ranching structures so that these types of operations may continue.
In 2006, Congress enacted legislation increasing the allowable tax deduction for donated conservation easements from 30% to 50% of yearly adjusted gross income (AGI), with farmers and ranchers who donate easements allowed to deduct up to 100% of their AGI's. The allowable period for taking deductions for voluntary easements was also increased from 5 to 15 years. However, these provisions expired on December 31, 2007. Advocates such as the Land Trust Alliance, which represents some 1,600 U.S. conservation organizations, are urging people to contact their members of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate within the next two weeks and urge support for the Senate Farm Bill and HR 1576, which would make the easement tax incentives permanent.
Recently, some abuses of the conservation easement system have come to light. Notably, unethical appraisers have greatly exaggerated the value of some properties, allowing landowners to claim large and undeserved tax write-offs. In other cases, properties that were not developable (think steep mountains or swamps) or offered no conservation value (like golf courses and cemeteries) have been allowed to use conservation easements. However, steps have been taken to correct some of these abuses. Congress has enacted legislation to reform land conservation and adopt a uniform code of land appraisal standards. The IRS has created a task force to monitor and support legitimate conservation deals, and to identify and prevent abuse. In addition, an accreditation program has been started by the Land Trust Alliance to encourage adherence to legal and ethical standards in the creation of conservation easements.
Landowners must ultimately decide whether or not a conservation easement is the right choice for them, but if you do have property that might qualify, the rewards can be tremendous. Many people appreciate the fact that they have a direct say in how land and water resources that are important to them will be protected. Certainly there are financial incentives as well, but perhaps no reward is greater than the pride one can take helping to preserve and protect America's natural resources and open spaces.
To learn more about conservation easements and land trusts in your area, visit the Land Trust Alliance website at http://www.lta.org/yourregion/index.html.
Article: Real Estate, Conservation and Ecology
Added: Thu Feb 14 2008
Last Modified: Sat Jul 05 2008