What is a conservation easement?
A conservation easement is a legal agreement that a landowner makes with an appropriate third party to restrict the type and amount of development on their property. Each landowner holds a bundle of rights. The landowner may sell, give away, or donate all or some of these rights. These rights may include the right to harvest timber, extract minerals, construct buildings, subdivide the land, or restrict access, etc. To give away certain rights while retaining other rights, a landowner grants an easement to an appropriate third party, such as a qualified conservation organization or land trust. Wood-Land-Lakes Land Trust is a qualified conservation organization. Easements are called by different names, according to the land-use they are associated with or resource they protect. Easements used to protect utilities are known as utility easements, while easements used to conserve natural resources (including farmland) are called conservation easements.
What kind of land can be protected by a conservation easement?
The purpose of a conservation easement is to conserve land in a natural, scenic, or open space condition. This includes land in agriculture, forestry, wildlife habitats, wetlands, prairies, and pastures. Wood-Land-Lakes Land Trust specializes in all of the previously mentioned conservation easements and has a passion for protecting working farms to ensure sustainable family farming operations. Land which lies within municipal corporate limits is eligible, providing the preceding criteria are met.
Wood-Land-Lakes accepts a minimum of 20 acres of land unless it has strategic merits. Under 20 acre parcels may qualify for a conservation easement if the land adjoins or buffers other land with prime conservation values or would serve as a buffer between development and prime farmland. Land parcels that would serve to protect watersheds, lakes, or other ecological areas also fall into this category. If you are interested in conserving your land and have fewer than 20 acres, please contact us and we may be able to provide you with some alternatives.
Land that lies within municipal corporate limits is eligible, providing the preceding criteria are met. However, landfills, brownfields, industrial sites, or land with environmental hazards will not be considered.
Would I be giving up ownership?
No. The key feature of a conservation easement with Wood-Land-Lakes is that the land remains in private ownership. The landowner maintains the land and all responsibilities associated with land ownership other than those specifically relinquished rights written into the conservation easement language.
Will I be able to sell my land?
Yes. Property with a conservation easement can be bought, sold, and inherited. The conservation easement is tied to the land and binds all present and future owners to its terms and restrictions.
Can an easement be purchased?
Yes. The landowner can sell the development rights, while retaining all other rights of ownership. However, Wood-Land-Lakes Land Trust only accepts donated development rights. Our nonprofit, qualified organization status often allows landowners to experience income tax and estate tax benefits, because an easement donated to us may be treated as a charitable contribution. Landowners need to work with their tax accountant to determine their potential benefits.
How is the value of the conservation easement determined?
The value of the conservation easement is the difference between the property’s fair market value before and after the restrictions, as established by a qualified appraiser. Wood-Land-Lakes has resources available to assist landowners in finding qualified appraisers.
What are the costs involved with a conservation easement?
There are some upfront costs for the landowner with regard to conservation easements; for most people these initial costs are more than recouped from the income tax benefit the IRS allows for charitable contributions for some taxpayers. Expenses include a title search, survey, appraisal, financial advisor fees, tax preparer fees, attorney fees, recording fees, and a monetary donation to Wood-Land-Lakes.
Can the conservation easement be changed or revoked?
Conservation easements qualifying under IRS regulations are designed to be permanent and are rarely modified. A conservation easement may only be modified if it strengthens the document and increases the protection of the land. Both the landowner and conservation organization must agree to the terms of the change. The only time a conservation easement can be significantly modified or revoked is with Court approval.
What are the steps to put an easement on the land?
Wood-Land-Lakes has developed a step-by-step planning document we can send you upon request. Although a conservation easement can be a complicated real estate transaction, we will assist you in every step of the process to ensure your wishes for the farm are met and all of the necessary elements for a strong conservation easement are completed correctly. This is a significant legal process that has permanent affects on your farm. Plan on 12 months to work through the process.
What do I do if I am interested?
Contact us for a packet of information (sent to you either by email or by post). We will send you a basic template for a conservation easement contract to review with your family and your attorney. This template is the foundation upon which we start building your personalized easement. We will also include the step-by-step planning document and any additional information you request. Included in your packet will be a detailed landowner questionnaire which, when completed, will guide us through the various elements of the transaction. To begin the process, complete the questionnaire and return it to us. The Land Trust Committee will review your responses and if the committee determines your farm qualifies, we start the conservation easement process with you.