What Is a Conservation Land Trust?

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What Is a Conservation Land Trust?

A conservation land trust is a specific kind of trust, where property or land is placed under a conservation easement. This setup allows the landowner, the public, and the land itself to benefit from the agreement. It also allows the individuals or families inheriting the land trust to experience lasting benefits as well.

For the public, they obtain the guarantee that a particular area of outdoor space will not be further developed. This guarantee “runs with the land”, meaning that it will continue despite any future inheritance or sale of the property to other individuals or families.

For the families and individuals directly involved with the conservation land trust, they obtain potential tax benefits, as well as the ability to continue operating on the land in some specified fashion. This might include outdoor recreation or even continued agricultural work.

Most land trusts are a type of private 501(c)(3) charitable organization that acquires conservation easements (or outdoor space outright), or that continues to manage land or easements, in order to attain at least one primary conservation purpose, and often more than that.

These conservation purposes might include the protection of a specific natural habitat for wildlife or plant species, the preservation of water quality for a given area, or even the natural beauty of scenic vistas and views. Other possibilities include making sure that the parcel of land is continually operational for specific purposes, such as the tending of a farm, foresting practices, or for the use of leisurely activities. Overall, a land trust must ensure and protect the stated values that are provided by the open land in question.

Further, many land trusts work alongside the owners of the outdoor spaces they manage in order to properly facilitate and ultimately finalize real estate deals. And, finally, conservation land trusts labor to maintain that land they’ve obtained (or under which an easement has been placed) is conserved satisfactorily with regard to each one’s specific governing principles. In other words, land trusts endeavor to bring about permanent conservation benefits from the territory under their charge and care.

What Is Conservation Land?

Under the guidelines laid out by the Internal Revenue Code, conservation land must be some outdoor domain preserved for the providing of one (or more) of these activities:

  • Land preserved for the use of recreation and leisure in the outdoors
  • Public educational and instructive purposes
  • Natural habitat preservation for wildlife, including animals or vegetation
  • Space that is preserved and kept open, including woods, forests, or farmland areas
  • The preservation of land(s) or structure(s) that are historically relevant or significant to a given community in a specified area

What Is a Conservation Easement?

A conservation easement is a legal agreement voluntarily entered into by a land trust and a landowner, which limits the utilization of a specific parcel of land in perpetuity, for the purposes of protecting and preserving a set of given conservation values. The landowner is allowed to use the land, sell the land, and bequeath it in their will, but the easement restrictions will always “run with the land”, remaining a permanent part of the space in each of these outcomes

Under this agreement, if/when a landowner decides to donate a conservation easement to a given land trust, they in turn transfer some of the rights they previously held with that land. For one example, a landowner may cede their entitlement to construct additional buildings or homes, while keeping their right to continue farming on the land, planting crops, raising livestock, enjoying recreation, or other stipulated activities. Any future owners of the property will be restricted by these same terms of the easement.

The land trust itself is the party that oversees the terms of the easement and sees to it that they are maintained indefinitely within the domain of the agreement. Even so, it should be noted that conservation easements can also provide substantial adaptability and latitude as well. For example, a conservation easement applied to property that contains habitat territory for a rare, vulnerable, or endangered breed of plant or wildlife may preclude any type of further development whatsoever on the property.

That being said, another conservation easement, such as on farmland, may permit farming unabated, as well as construction of supplemental agricultural buildings as needed for the land’s purposes. A conservation easement can apply to all of a plot of land or only a segment of a given property. Importantly, conservation easements do not of necessity require access to, or by, the general public.

What Is a Land Trust?

A land trust is a nonprofit organization that obtains land or acquires conservation easements, or a group that manages such land or conservation easements. Such organizations exist to realize and fulfill at least one significant conservation purpose for a given parcel of land. These can include the protection of an animal or plant’s natural habitat, the quality of a water source, natural scenery, farming availability, foresting operations, outdoor leisure, and any other substantial conservation purposes provided by a land area.

Land trust organizations provide a service to work jointly with the owners of conservation land for a number of purposes: real estate, property interest, donations, etc. Further, land trusts labor to preserve the proper conservation of any land under their purview. They work chiefly to maintain perpetual benefits from the land for the future of the community.

Additionally, a conservation land trust also works as an exceedingly simple and helpful legal device for maintaining privacy and steering clear of probate court regarding wills and bequeathals. While they don’t offer the direct protection of a landowner’s assets, the privacy that they do offer can in turn make it more difficult to be pursued financially by other parties.

What Is the Benefit of a Land Trust?

There are a number of legal and financial benefits to creating a land trust. For one, they provide significant value to their communities. With their non-profit status, they also offer a number of benefits for tax purposes. Another benefit of donating parcels of land or entering into conservation easements (and which makes them similar to gifting financial resources) is that qualified landowners can receive significant reductions on both their income tax and estate tax.

Moreover, because land trusts operate as private entities, they are typically more elastic than public organizations. This, in turn, allows them to proceed swiftly in order to protect an area from any risk of development that might endanger the land and its conservation benefits.

Why Should You Grant a Conservation Easement to a Land Trust?

Many landowners experience substantial tax savings in relation to an easement donation. If it benefits the general public by offering protection to beneficial and necessary conservation materials and areas (and if it meets all the requirements of the federal Internal Revenue Code), a land trust can be entitled to the tax-deductible benefits of a charitable donation.

What Are the Benefits of Conservation Easements?

There is a myriad of benefits to employing conservation easements on a particular parcel of land. For the landowner(s), they take part in conservation easement agreements to provide protection for their land. This protection is mainly aimed at preventing further development that may negatively impact the area and its habitat, both in the present and for future generations.

In addition, a number of possible financial benefits exist for landowners to consider. If a landowner puts a conservation easement on his or her property, the owner(s) can potentially receive a substantial tax savings. Further, by restricting further construction or other developments on the land, an easement can reduce the market value for a given property.

This value reduction may also result in substantial property tax and estate alleviation. As a result, a landowner’s heirs may be able to keep their inherited property together, as opposed to splitting it up into smaller plots in order to accommodate an otherwise burdensome tax bill.

Some conservation easements can qualify as charitable donations, contingent upon the agreement’s structure and stipulations. Again, this may also alleviate some state and federal income tax burdens. If considered a charitable donation, an easement is technically referring to the property’s development rights, as opposed to the land itself. The resulting valuation of the tax deduction amounts to the difference in value without the development limitations. In other words, the property’s donation value is the market value without development rights subtracted from the market value with development rights.

What Is a Land Trust’s Responsibility to Conservation Easements?

A land trust is the primary party responsible for overseeing the land on which a conservation easement has been placed. Specifically, a land trust will visit each property in their purview once a year to confirm that the easement’s restrictions are being followed as intended.

This in-person check might entail making sure that development is not exceeding the easement’s stipulations. It may also entail confirming that any farming, forestry, or outdoor recreational activities performed on the land are not outside the bounds of the conservation easement agreement as laid out.

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