A conservation easement is a set of restrictions a private landowner voluntarily places on their property to preserve its conservation value forever. Each conservation easement is unique, specifically tailored to the conservation values of the land and to the particular situation of the landowner.
Conservation easements can protect a variety of land, including the shoreline of lakes, rivers and streams; wildlife habitat; productive agricultural or forestry lands; scenic areas; public trails; and other open land. Conservation easements must provide public benefits, such as water quality, farm and ranch land preservation, scenic views, wildlife habitat, outdoor recreation, education, and historic preservation.
The conservation values of the property and the restrictions created to preserve those values, along with the rights reserved by the landowner, are detailed in a legal document known as a conservation easement deed.
Within the deed, the conservation values of the land are defined and restrictions are created to protect those values. Typically, easements prohibit residential, commercial or industrial uses, construction of buildings or roads, utilities, disturbance of the vegetation or topography, and any activities on the property that might interfere with the conservation purposes for the easement. The restrictions apply to the current owner and all future landowners, permanently protecting the property. See Easement Summary.
The landowner still owns the easement area land and has the right to use it for purposes that are not specifically restricted or relinquished by the easement deed. They can also sell, transfer or leave the easement to someone through a will. Landowners retain the right to restrict public access to the easement area, along with the rest of their property.
Since the land remains in private ownership, with the remainder of the property rights intact, an agricultural easement property can continue to provide economic benefits in the form of jobs, economic activity and property taxes. Natural area easements don't allow agriculture and the activities previously listed. See a list of frequently asked questions.
Reasons to consider the sale or donation of a conservation easement
Landowners have cited the following reasons for selling a conservation easement:
- Receiving a cash payment without having to sell their land
- Protecting natural areas, water quality and open space for future generations
- Preserving land as a treasured family legacy
- Providing and enhancing wildlife habitat – especially for unique species
- Receiving cash to pay taxes and other expenses
- Employing a strategy to potentially reduce property and income taxes
- Being eligible for additional public natural resource restoration funding.
Valuing conservation easements
The value of a conservation easement is determined by the type of easement, restrictions and local zoning. In general, the landowner's property is appraised by an independent appraiser to determine its value as though it would be sold in its current condition.
This assessment establishes the "Before Value." The property is then appraised with the easement restrictions in place. If the easement removes the ability to build houses or farm the land, there is a significant reduction in value. If the easement does not have much affect on what the landowner can and cannot do, there is less reduction in value. This reduced value is known as the "After Value." The Easement Value is the difference between the Before Value and the After Value.
The County's offer to acquire the easement is based on the appraised easement value. Landowners may wish to accept an offer for their easement at less than the appraised fair market value for tax considerations, estate planning purposes, and to make their application more competitive in the selection process (points are awarded for landowner financial considerations).