Conservation Easement FAQs
What is a Conservation Easement?
A conservation easement is a voluntary, legal agreement between a landowner and a land trust or government agency that permanently limits uses of the land in order to protect its conservation values. It allows you to continue to own and use your land and to sell it or pass it on to heirs.
When you donate a conservation easement to a land trust, you give up some of the rights associated with the land. For example, you might give up the right to build additional structures, while retaining the right to grow crops. Future owners also will be bound by the easement’s terms. The land trust is responsible for making sure the easement’s terms are followed on a long-term basis.
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.
A landowner sometimes sells a conservation easement, but usually easements are donated. If the donation benefits the public by permanently protecting important conservation resources and meets other federal tax code requirements it can qualify as a tax-deductible charitable donation. The amount of the donation is the difference between the land’s value with the easement and its value without the easement. Placing an easement on your property may or may not result in property tax savings.
Perhaps most important, a conservation easement can be essential for passing land on to the next generation. By removing the land’s development potential, the easement lowers its market value, which in turn lowers estate tax. Whether the easement is donated during life or by will, it can make a critical difference in the heirs’ ability to keep the land intact.
What are the financial benefits of donating a conservation easement?
Federal Tax Benefits
The IRS allows federal tax benefits to landowners who donate conservation easements on properties with exceptional land resources or historic landmarks of great public value. In addition, the conservation easement must be perpetual, made to a qualified donee, such as BRC, and meet one or more of the following four conservation purposes:
- Preservation of land for public outdoor recreation or education;
- Protection of relatively natural habitats for fish, wildlife, plants;
- Preservation of open space, including farm and forest land, according to clearly delineated government conservation policy;
- Preservation of historically important lands and buildings, including those listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
A donor of a qualified conservation easement may claim its value, determined by a qualified appraisal, as a deduction for income, gift and estate tax purposes. Landowners should consult with their tax advisors for guidance on this issue.
The donor can claim a deduction up to 50% of their adjusted gross income. If the donor is unable to claim the entire deduction in the year of the donation, then they can carry forward the unused portion of the deduction for up to 15 years. Donors who earn at least half of their income from farming or ranching may take a deduction equal to 100% of their adjusted gross income and carry forward any unused portion of the deduction for up to 15 years. After 2011, all taxpayers will be subject to a 30% cap on the amount of the deduction that may be claimed, and the carry-forward period shrinks from 15 years to 5 years.
NC Conservation Tax Credit Program
NC State Income Tax Credit equal to 25% of fair market value of donated property interest, up to a maximum credit of $250,000 for individuals and $500,000 for corporations. Any unused portion of the credit may be carried forward for five succeeding years. For more information visit the NC Conservation Tax Credit Program
Why should I grant a conservation easement to a land trust?
People execute a conservation easement because they love their open space land, and want to protect their land from inappropriate development while keeping their private ownership of the property. Granting an easement to a conservation organization that qualifies under the Internal Revenue Code as a “public charity” – which nearly all land trusts do – can yield income tax savings. Moreover, land trusts, some of which are more than 100 years old, have the expertise and experience to work with landowners and ensure that the land will remain as permanent open space.
How can a conservation easement be tailored to my needs and wishes?
An easement restricts development to the degree that is necessary to protect the significant conservation values of that particular property. Sometimes this totally prohibits construction, and sometimes it doesn’t. Landowners and land trusts, working together, can write conservation easements that reflect both the landowner’s desires and the need to protect conservation values. Even the most restrictive easements typically permit landowners to continue such traditional uses of the land as farming and ranching.
How long does a conservation easement last?
Most easements “run with the land,” binding the original owner and all subsequent owners to the easement’s restrictions. Only gifts of perpetual easements can qualify for income and estate tax benefits. The easement is recorded at the county or town records office so that all future owners and lenders will learn about the restrictions when they obtain title reports.
What are a land trust’s responsibilities regarding conservation easements?
The land trust is responsible for enforcing the restrictions that the easement document spells out. Therefore, the land trust monitors the property on a regular basis — typically once a year – to determine that the property remains in the condition prescribed by the easement document. The land trust maintains written records of these monitoring visits, which also provide the landowner a chance to keep in touch with the land trust. Many land trusts establish endowments to provide for long-term stewardship of the easements they hold.
For more information on Conservation Easements, download the Voluntary Conservation Agreements Handbook.
For answers to questions or to learn more about how to work with Blue Ridge Conservancy to preserve your land, contact Eric Hiegl, Director for Land Protection and Stewardship or at:
Blue Ridge Conservancy
P.O. Box 568
Boone, NC 28607