A conservation easement is a voluntary contract between a landowner and a land trust or government agency in which the owner places permanent restrictions on the future uses of some or all of their property to protect scenic, wildlife, drinking water, or agricultural resources. The property owner still owns the land, and they can use it, sell it, or leave it to their heirs. A conservation easement does not grant public access unless the easement donor specifically agrees to provide for it.
Below are some of the most common questions about conservation easements. More resources are available on our Landowners page, including stories from landowners in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia that have placed conservation easements on their land.
What are the benefits of a conservation easement?
Conservation easements allow people to protect the land they love. They are the number one tool available for protecting privately owned land. All conservation easements provide public benefits, such as protecting drinking water quality, farm and ranch land preservation, scenic views, wildlife habitat, outdoor recreation, education, and historic preservation.
As the landowner, you'll have the peace of mind knowing that your land and legacy will be preserved for future generations.
How long does a conservation easement last?
Because an easement protects the land in perpetuity, all future landowners are bound to the restrictions. The easement is created in the form of a deed. This Deed of Conservation Easement is recorded in the county land records. Because it is recorded with the property deed records, future landowners are put on notice of the land protections that have been recorded.
Who owns the land?
The easement donors continue to own their property, retaining authority just as they did before the easement was recorded, subject to the restrictions in the easement. The land can be transferred, sold, and inherited as before.
How does a conservation easement restrict use of the land?
That depends on what you’re trying to protect. If you’re placing land under easement, you can work with your land trust to decide on terms that are right for the land and right for you.
For example, if it’s important to you to be able to build a home on the land or to subdivide your property, you may be able to reserve those rights -- as long as you’re still protecting important conservation values (such as productive farmland or wildlife habitat). You can use an easement to protect your whole property or part of it.
While every easement is unique, there are a few general rules. Farming and ranching are usually permitted. Development is almost always limited. Surface mining is almost always off-limits. While some easements require public access, many do not.
How is the easement monitored?
The land trust or farmland protection board prepares a baseline documentation report, complete with photos and GPS readings, that establishes the condition of the property at the time of the easement and provides the basis for annual monitoring visits. The landowner has a copy of this baseline documentation report.
What is the value of a conservation easement?
The difference between fair market value of the land before the easement is created and the value of the land after the easement represents the fair market value of the conservation easement. Easement value results from giving up the development rights. A “qualified appraisal” determines the value for payment or tax benefits.
A county Farmland Protection Board can pay for all or part of the easement value, subject to availability of funds (generated by the real estate transfer tax) and matching funds from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service or, if the property is in a congressionally-recognized Civil War battlefield, from the American Battlefield Protection Program.
Under the IRS code, qualified conservation easement donations to a non-profit organization can be treated as charitable gifts. If the property has been owned for more than one year, the portion of the value of the donation not paid for can be deducted against up to 50 per cent of the donor’s income, with any excess carried forward for up to fifteen years. There are also potential estate tax benefits, since donation of an easement can reduce the value of the property upon which estate taxes are calculated. Finally, West Virginia Code specifies that land under a conservation easement should be taxed as agricultural land. If the Property is not already receiving farm-use valuation, this can result in lower property taxes. Learn more about tax benefits here.
What is the role of the land trust or farmland protection board?
It is the land trust or farmland protection board's job to make sure that the restrictions described in the easement are actually carried out. To do this, they monitos the property on a regular basis, typically once a year. They will work with you and all future landowners to make sure that activities on the land are consistent with the easement. If necessary, they are responsible for taking legal action to enforce the easement.