Across America, thousands of people are determined to conserve the places they value. Landowners have a deep connection to their land and know the gifts undeveloped properties provide their communities: clear air and water, fresh food, wildlife habitat, and sheer scenic beauty. All too often these special places disappear forever because of development. Americans who want to conserve their land can turn to land trusts – non profit organizations that work with landowners interested in protecting open space.
Land trusts protect land directly by buying or accepting donations of land or of conservation easements. They also educate the public and advocate for the need to conserve land. They can help landowners tailor a conservation plan to their individual situation and financial circumstances, and determine the property’s conservation values and future ownership.
Land trusts protect a variety of lands, but many concentrate their efforts on:
Land trusts have many options available to them in order to conserve land. Two of the most popular options are fee simple and conservation easements. For a bit more information on these, please see our Conservation Tools page.
A land trust can conserve land through an outright purchase or donation, in which the landowner sells or grants all rights, title and interest in the property to the land trust. The land trust maintains perpetual stewardship and management responsibility for the land. It owns the land and may grant conservation easements on land it owns in fee to another conservation organization, agency or town.
A conservation easement (or conservation restriction) is a 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 the landowner to continue to own and use the land and to sell it or pass it on to heirs.
A landowner sometimes sells a conservation easement to a land trust. However, across the country, most easements are donated, as there are specific and substantial tax deductions available to landowners who donate to a land trust all or part of the value of the conservation easement. 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. Easement values vary greatly, and depend both upon the market value of the property and the value of the uses that are limited by the easement itself. In general, the highest easement values result from very restrictive conservation easements on tracts of developable open space under intense development pressure. In Oregon, however, because of our land use system, such development pressure and corresponding high value of conservation easements are less present than in other states.
Perhaps most importantly, 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.
The land trust is responsible for enforcing the restrictions detailed in the easement document. 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.
Land trusts draw upon a variety of sources to buy land, or interests in land, using a unique and proactive method called conservation financing. Conservation financing utilizes local, state, federal and other funding sources to protect open space and manage growth.
Since the amount of federal funding available for conservation fluctuates annually, local funding is the key to effective, long-term conservation financing. It is important to have local commitment and control. Local funds also help leverage federal, state and private dollars, establishing a predictable and sizable conservation funding stream. State and local governments continue to fund open space acquisition, viewing parks, recreation and habitat as “green infrastructure” important to the quality of life and the economy.
Perhaps the most critical source of funding for land trust activity comes from the local community itself. People who value conservation in their community often find ways to support their local land trust through financial contributions, matching gifts, estate planning, and the like. In addition, some people act as conservation buyers, who are able to assist a land trust in making a purchase of fee title or easement critical to the mission of the organization. Community support is a creative and vital component to the success of a land trust.
Land trusts have many advantages as land protection organizations. One advantage of working with land trusts is that they are very closely tied to the communities in which they operate. They can draw on community resources, including volunteer time and skills. Their community orientation is also helpful in selecting and negotiating transactions. They are familiar with the land in the area and often have the trust and confidence of local landowners who may not want to work with entities from outside the area.
Moreover, the nonprofit tax status of land trusts brings them a variety of tax benefits. Donations of land, conservation easements or money may qualify for income, estate or gift tax savings. Properly structured land trusts are exempt from Federal and state income taxes and sometimes from local property and real estate transfer taxes as well. Additionally, due to the fact that land trusts are private organizations, they can be more flexible and creative than public or government agencies, and can often act more quickly. They can hold and manage land and other assets as a corporation, and are able to negotiate with landowners discreetly.
The following are most of the basic steps in the donation of a conservation easement. These not only will vary from land trust to land trust and region to region, but also in the case of a purchased easement. However, we include the following to give the reader a sense of the general process. As always, the best way is to understand what is required is to check with your local land trust.