What is a Conservation Easement?
A conservation easement is a voluntary agreement negotiated between a landowner and a public agency or charitable conservation organization in which the landowner agrees to place specific restrictions on the use and development of their property in exchange for payment and various income and estate tax benefits. It represents an opportunity for landowners to voluntarily donate or sell a conservation easement to a public authority to be held in trust for perpetuity. In turn, the landowner will receive monetary compensation either though direct payment from the Authority or by selling the tax credits generated by the easement donation.
The amount of compensation is based on the difference between the value of the property prior to the easement and the value of the property after the easement. The difference in value reflects the land’s value as protected open space (such as farmland, forest land or rural use) versus the “highest and best” use (often residential development). Since it is a voluntary agreement, the landowners retain ownership of the land and can tailor the easement to meet their specific goals and vision for the property, but in order to be considered a “qualified conservation contribution” and receive tax benefits, the easement must meet a standard of sufficient protection for the property.
By promoting a land ethic and responsible stewardship of the property, an easement provides a lasting benefit to the public through the protection of open space, scenic beauty, wildlife habitats, and air and water quality.
Who will hold the easement?
The County Board of Supervisors, the County Conservation Easement Authority and one or more other public or nonprofit entities such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, or the Piedmont Environmental Council.
Does an easement give the public access?
No. Since landowners retain title to their property, they retain the quiet and private use and enjoyment of it.
How do citizens benefit from this program?
There is an increasing recognition that farm and forest land, clean water and air, diverse wildlife habitats, scenic vistas and rural character have public as well as private value. The Easement Purchase Program provides a means for attaining a balance between landowner’s rights and responsibilities and the public value of rural land. The Easement Purchase Program supports the goals of the Comprehensive Plan by adding an additional tool to protect the County’s natural, scenic, cultural and historical resources, promoting a stable, sustainable and vital agricultural and forestry base, and protecting the County’s surface and groundwater supplies.