A conservation easement is a legal document tied to the deed of your land which describes certain rights and restrictions that you and all future landowners will abide by. It guides future land uses for all owners, primarily by protecting special natural features and limiting the type and scope of development. The easement is held by a third party, a conservation or government agency, which ensures the terms of the easement are upheld over time.
What is the process for creating a conservation easement?
The following outline describes the easement process, though the details will vary for each landowner. The landowner pays for basic legal expenses, and appraisal, and will be asked to make a stewardship donation to ensure the land remains protected forever.
1. Plan for your land.
Think through the goals for protecting your land and talk with those who will be affected by the decision (family members) and with those who can help facilitate the decision (the Land Trust, family advisors, lawyer with conservation experience, resource managers, tax and financial advisors, etc.).
2. Negotiate the terms.
Once you decide to protect your land through an easement, you will negotiate the specific terms. The easement is tailored to your own particular goals and to the property. You will negotiate with the agency which will hold the easement, such as the Georges River Land Trust. Key issues of the easement include: whether building lots will be reserved, what land uses will be permitted or prohibited, and whether to allow public access to the property. The Land Trust will prepare the easement, though you will need a lawyer to review it on your behalf.
3. Get appraisals, surveys, and other supporting documents.
Landowners who wish to seek a deduction for the donation of the easement will need to commission an appraisal of its value. The Land Trust will be able to refer landowners to appraisers with conservation experience. Surveys are not always necessary when there are well defined features such as stone walls, brooks, or roads that define the property boundaries. The Land Trust will work with the landowner to find the best and most cost effective way to ensure the boundaries are clear in order to ensure accurate monitoring of the property can take place.
4. Sign the easement.
As with any real estate transaction, the easement process will culminate when all parties come together for a closing. The easement becomes official once it is signed. It is then registered at the Registry of Deeds, and copies are made for the landowner and Land Trust.
5. Claim tax benefits.
Landowners can take advantages of several tax benefits by first notifying the property taxing authorities of your donation. If the easement meets basic requirements, you can claim a federal income tax deduction for your donation. In addition, you may be able to claim local tax savings. Property taxes can also be reduced by enrolling in the Farm and Open Space Tax Program, available to residents of Maine.
6. Monitor the easement.
The signing of the easement is just the first step in a long-term relationship with the Land Trust. From this point forward, the Land Trust takes the responsibility to monitor the property annually to ensure the terms of the easement are upheld. As the landowner, you will continue to remain in touch with the Land Trust to discuss land-use issues on your conserved property.
Adapted from a document prepared by conservation attorney, Rob Levin.
Also available is a comprehensive guide to conservation options for landowners.