What Are Your Land Conservation Options?

Those wishing to protect their land from undesirable development or use after they no longer can oversee it have a variety of options that are reviewed here. It probably is not necessary to remind landowners that zoning, or even the needs or whims of close relatives, are subject to change. It is a sad commentary on society’s values that most people view land as a commodity, to be bought and sold for profit. Land, however, is a component of Earth’s ecosystem which must function to maintain a healthy environment. Like our bodies, parts can be abused, even lost, and the body continues to function, but each degradation leads to greater dysfunction. To the extent that we each ensure that our piece of Earth’s ecosystem remains intact, all of society profits and is sustained.

Conservation easement

Marathon County easement

Marathon County easement

A conservation easement is a voluntary land protection agreement between a landowner and a non-profit entity, called a land trust, willing to hold and enforce the easement in perpetuity. The conservation easement is a legal document that becomes a part of the deed, restricting certain activities or uses, or subdivision. What is restricted is up to the landowner and the landowner’s family, although the land trust will have an interest in both what is restricted and how it is stated in the document. The land trust will want to be certain that the easement protects the most important habitats and resources that contribute to environmental quality and aesthetics. This nearly always is also the aim of the landowner. The land trust will also want to avoid restrictions that it cannot easily monitor or enforce, such as hunting rights or trespass. These restrictions are better left to the landowner. Finally, it is important that the document be unambiguous, clearly define the area being protected, and fulfill all legal requirements. To this end, the land trust will ask its attorney, familiar with conservation easements and the legal requirements, to review the final draft and offer any suggestions for improvement. Likewise, the landowner will have every opportunity to contribute to the development of the easement and have it reviewed by an attorney, if desired.

Portage County easement

Portage County easement

Conservation easements are especially attractive because you retain ownership and use of the property with only restrictions that you have agreed to place on the land. If you choose, you can continue to farm, practice forestry, hunt, lease, or otherwise enjoy your property as always. You also can bequeath, sell, or give their property to whomever you choose. The property will always be restricted by the easement regardless, and the land trust will monitor and enforce the easement.

Because donated conservation easements are viewed as charitable gifts to the public by the IRS, they can provide significant tax advantages if they meet federal tax code requirements. Easements may be donated through your will or trust, or by an executor of an estate, although most landowners who want their land protected do so while they are able to oversee the development of the easement. Property restricted by conservation easement may also be assessed at a lower value. Check with your local assessor. Also, you may obtain property tax relief through participation in government programs such as Managed Forest Law. Most such programs are compatible with conservation easements.

 

Land Donation

You may choose to donate your land to North Central Conservancy Trust. This may be the best strategy for landowners who do not wish to pass the land to heirs, and have no further use for the property that often is greatly appreciated and may represent a tax burden on the owner or the estate. By gifting it to NCCT, a tax credit for the full value is realized. NCCT, at no cost to you, will place a conservation easement on the property that reflects your wishes, and sell the property to a buyer who understands and accepts the restrictions of the easement. You receive the full tax advantage plus the satisfaction of knowing the land will be forever protected, and the proceeds from the sale are used to protect other land.

If you wish, you may retain full use of donated land in several ways. Land can be donated as a Reserved Life Estate, allowing you to continue use through your lifetime. Alternatively, land can be donated by Bequest, or “donation by devise,” which transfers ownership of the property to the land trust through your will.

Purchase of Land or Easement

If you are not in a position to donate an easement or your land, but the land has exceptional conservation values which you and NCCT have agreed should be protected, the land or easement might be sold to the land trust. NCCT has very limited resources to purchase easements or land, but in rare cases might be able to organize a fund-raising program to acquire the money. Sometimes, in these rare instances, the landowner is willing to offer the easement or the land at below market price, and thereby contribute to the sale. The amount below fair market value, based on current appraisal, is a potential tax benefit.

Trade Land

Not all real estate will qualify for a conservation easement, but many of the tax benefits discussed above can be still realized by donation of real estate to NCCT. NCCT will sell these donations and use the money to protect conservation land. Thus, you have potential tax benefits and the satisfaction of knowing you have contributed to land conservation, even though your real estate was in town or did not have qualifying conservation values.