Step 2: Conservation Easement Options

One step of Six Steps to a Happy Conservation Easement

You have lots of options as to which rights you choose to keep and which rights you choose to donate with a conservation easement.

You can donate a conservation easement or donate the land “fee simple”

  • A “fee simple” conveyance means you give up all rights to the property. This is the way you sold your old house; you gave up all of your rights (and obligations) to the property. You no longer had the right to occupy or even go onto the property. You also gave up the obligation to pay taxes, to pay for insurance, and to maintain the property.
  • With a conservation easement, you give up some rights to the property, typically the right to subdivide and build lots of houses. You still own and occupy the property and/or farm the property. You still have the obligation to pay taxes on the property. Nothing changes, except for the rights you give up.

People grant conservation easements because they want to protect their property from unwanted development but they also wish to retain ownership of, and control over, their land. By granting a conservation easement a landowner can assure that the property will be protected forever, regardless of who owns the land in the future. An additional benefit of granting a conservation easement is that the donation of an easement may provide significant tax advantage to the donor.

The activities allowed by a conservation easement depend on the landowner’s wishes and the characteristics of the property. In some instances, no further development is allowed on the land. You may retain the right to farm and timber the restricted part. If you own a farm, you can donate your right to subdivide and build houses, while retaining your right to continue farming the land forever. And have your well and septic system on it. In other circumstances some additional development is allowed (like a house or a building envelope), but the amount and type of development is less than would otherwise be allowed. A building envelope is like a house lot, but you don’t specify exactly where it is, e.g. “4 acres with 300 feet frontage on the road”, without being constrained to a specific 4 acres with a specific frontage. Conservation easements may be designated to only a portion of a property, so you can exclude your house, barn, and immediately surrounding land. Every easement is unique, tailored to a particular landowner’s goals and their land. Some conservation easements only cover a portion of the landowner’s property. For example, if someone owns 80 acres, of which 35 acres are wetlands, the landowner may decide to restrict development only on these 35 acres. The remaining 45 acres would not be covered or affected by the easement. The tax advantage you gain is dependent on how much value you give away, e.g. wetlands are not as valuable as buildable land with street frontage.

The public does not have access to property protected by a conservation easement unless the original landowner who grants the easement specifically allows it. Many conservation easement donors do not want, and therefore do not allow, public access to their property.