Don’t let conservation easements scare you. Much of the discussion surrounding easements is misleading. Here are nine of the most common myths about conversation easements.
Myth #1. Easements are for “the rich and famous.”
Fact: Landowners from all walks of life place conservation easements on their property. Easements can either be donated or purchased. The existence of the transferable tax credit and options like purchasing development rights help make placing a conservation easement an accessible option for people from every income level.
Myth #2. You can’t sell your land if you have an easement on it.
FACT: Land under a conservation easement can be bought and sold as any other private property transaction. Landowners never give up title to their property. They maintain rights to sell, lease, borrow against, and manage their land. The conservation easement outlines the vision of the landowner who has given up some development rights in order to protect the family’s or individual’s long-term goals on their property. A conservation easement is a tailored document with flexibility to the needs of the landowner. A landowner should never sign a deed without certainty that it represents exactly what he or she wants.
Myth #3. You have to grant the public access to your land in easement.
FACT: Public access is not a requirement for conveying a conservation easement. As with any private property, the landowner chooses who to grant access to their land.
Myth #4. You’re unable to retain any development rights.
Fact: If a landowner is placing land under easement, he or she can work with the conservation organization to decide on terms that are right for the land and right for the landowner. For example, if it’s important to be able to build a home on the land or to subdivide the property, the landowner may be able to reserve those rights – as long as important conservation values (such as productive farmland or wildlife habitat) are still protected.
Myth #5. You can’t farm, hunt, fish, or harvest timber on your land in easement.
Fact: Asignificant amount of land under easement is actively farmed while other land is managed for different purposes. Easements help support clean air and water, offer natural habitats for wildlife, and scenic open space for residents and tourists. In 2014, the Virginia Outdoors Foundation conducted a survey of 631 landowners with land under easement, and they determined that 90% of those landowners are “managing their protected lands for agricultural production or forestry.” And 70% said they “used the tax credits to implement land management practices that benefit water, soil, wildlife, or forest quality or that provide other conservation benefits.”
Myth #6. You can’t pass on your land to your children.
Fact: Landowners who place easements on their land retain ownership of the land and can pass that land on to their children. In fact, because of the financial benefits, the easement may increase the likelihood that the land can remain within the family for coming generations.
Myth #7. It’s “all or nothing.” You have to put all of your land in easement, not just a portion.
Fact: A conservation easement does not have to encompass an entire parcel of land and can include provisions allowing landowners to reserve portions of the property as future building sites free from development restrictions. This type of structure will impact the conservation easement’s value and may reduce the value for which the landowner is compensated.
Myth #8. The Conservation Easement Authority dictates what you can do with your land.
Fact: A conservation easement is specifically catered to the property owner’s wishes. Thus, current use and management of the land is usually maintained, with minimal to no impact on day-to-day activities. Indeed, in a well-planned document, the only rights transferred are often rights that the property owner had no intention of exercising, such as the right to build a subdivision or shopping mall. In addition, conservation easements often do not limit development altogether and the property owner is free to designate areas that can be used for buildings, such as barns or other agricultural structures or home sites. An easement does give the land trust certain rights, such as the ability to enter the land during “monitoring visits,” to ensure the terms of the easement are being upheld, and the right to enforce restrictions on the use of the land in accordance with the terms of the conservation easement. Monitoring visits are always coordinated with the landowner and the landowner typically accompanies the land trust staff on the visit.
Myth #9. You gain no significant benefits by putting your property in easement.
Fact: Conservation easements come in all different shapes and sizes and provide different public benefits – such as reducing development pressure in the rural area, providing cleaner air and water, keeping prime land available for agriculture and forestry, providing wildlife habitat, offering recreational opportunities, and preserving the scenic landscape that residents and tourists alike can enjoy.
(Sourced and adapted from various land conservation organizations, including the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, mylandconservancy.org, usendowment.org, nmlandconservancy.org, ccalt.org, Conservation Partners LLC, and Piedmont Environmental Council)