A conservation easement is an agreement between landowners and a municipality or land trust which is designed to protect land from development while allowing people to continue to hold it in private ownership. Like other easements, conservation easements are perpetual, except in extenuating circumstances; for example, a conservation easement can be overridden by eminent domain. The conservation easement is a powerful tool for preserving farmland, animal habitats, timber, and historic sites, ensuring that these resources will be around for future generations to enjoy.
The only person who can initiate a conservation easement is a landowner. Landowners can approach either municipalities or land trusts with an easement offer, and the organizations they approach can decide whether or not to accept the easement. If the easement is accepted, it will be written up and recorded along with the rest of the property deed, ensuring that the easement accompanies the property through any potential sales. In some cases, land trusts also may approach landowners to ask for a conservation easement.
A typical conservation easement prohibits subdivision and the construction of additional structures. Many agricultural easements are designed to allow the land to be used for agricultural use, serving as an incentive for farmers to donate conservation easements, because they can continue to use the land in the way they always have. Conservation easements also do not come with the right to public access; the land is privately held, and the landowners can decide whether or not to let people visit the site.
The obvious advantage to a conservation easement is that it protects land, especially in areas where development is rampant and people are concerned about sprawl. Some farmers like the concept because conservation easements allow them to express their wishes for the use of their land in a way which cannot be ignored, and many communities appreciate the generosity of people who donate conservation easements, because it ensures that they can continue to live in lightly developed areas which retain their rural characteristics and feel.
Another advantage to conservation easements is that they come with a tax break. Typically, people can claim a conservation easement as a tax deduction, because it presumably lowers the value of the land. In this case, an appraiser decides how much the property would be worth without an easement, and then how much it is worth with the easement, with the landowner deducting the difference. It is important to donate to an approved land trust or conservancy to get a tax deduction, and to appraise the land fairly. Failure to do so can result in a charge of tax fraud.