The most common tool to protect open space for future generations is called a conservation easement. It is a legal agreement, like a contract, that the property owner makes to restrict the type and amount of development that can take place on the property. The goal is to preserve natural, agricultural, scenic or historic resources.
Most conservation easements “run with the land.” That means the original owner and all subsequent owners are bound by it. This enables a property owner to protect land from development forever, or to make sure that a farm stays a farm for generations to come.
Like any tool, conservation easements have pros and cons. They need to be properly written, documented and managed. “There is a lot of flexibility when it comes to writing the restrictions,” notes Carolyn Werge, Conservation Officer for the Town of Thompson. “The restrictions in each one can be tailored to the particular property and the interests of the individual owner. For example, the terms can be negotiated to allow hunting or sustainable forestry, to keep the area as grassland for birds, or to carve out an area for a future house. Usually easements are most specific when it comes to stating activities or things that are NOT allowed,” says Werge. Agricultural conservation easements generally do not allow residential subdivision, or non-agricultural commercial development that would negatively affect the resources that are being protected.
Conservation easements can be donated or sold. Each approach has tax considerations. The 2006 Pension Reform Bill gives farmers and other moderate-income landowners a significant tax benefit for charitable donations of conservation easements. Donors can now take larger deductions, and spread deductions out over 15 years if desired.
Although the landowner retains ownership of the property itself (and the real estate remains on the tax rolls), somebody or something has to “hold” the conservation easement and make sure its terms are upheld. Usually this is a non-profit land trust, a homeowners association, or a government agency. Most land trusts and government agencies are selective about properties they will pursue or accept, because they do not want to get stuck with a parcel that does not serve the public interest, is expensive to manage, or does not fit with their goals. Otherwise, they could open themselves to public criticism, credibility issues and legal battles. A conservation easement that crosses multiple properties (e.g., in a “ring around the collar” arrangement around a subdivision) can be very difficult to manage. It is better to have all the protected land in one parcel, or attached to one parcel.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service calculated that in the five years between 1997 and 2001, 2.2 million acres were lost to development each year. That is almost three times the size of Rhode Island. Thanks to private landowner donations and sales, millions of acres of natural and cultural resources have been protected for farming, forestry, hunting, fishing, wildlife, scenic vistas, recreation and wildlife. For more information and links about conservation options, see www.woodstockconservation.org/saving_family_lands.htm.
Zimmerman is a Certified Environmental Professional, but she is not a lawyer or a tax professional (nor does she play one on TV), so be sure to consult with the real thing when making decisions on conservation options for your land.
CONSERVATION EASEMENT WORKSHOP: Green Valley Institute will hold a workshop on Thursday, May 8, at 7:00 p.m., Thompson Public Library/Community Center, hosted by the Thompson Conservation Commission and the Thompson Together Environmental Committee. For municipal land use decision makers and landowners thinking about protecting open space for future generations. For more information, contact Carolyn Werge at 923-1852.