What Is a Conservation Easement?
A conservation easement is a flexible tool that protects land while leaving it in private ownership. It is a legal and binding agreement between a landowner and a qualified conservation organization such as the Barrington Area Conservation Trust. To find out if your land may qualify for a conservation easement, click here.
CONSERVATION EASEMENTS OFFER MANY ADVANTAGES
1. Landowners retain title to their property and may continue to live on it, sell it, or pass it on to heirs, knowing that it will always be protected.
2. Landowners can receive significant income, estate, and property tax benefits.
3. Easements are flexible and are written to meet the particular needs of the landowner. By providing a “framework” for how the land can be used in the future, conservation easements can reduce the potential for disagreement when lands are passed on to heirs.
4. Easements are permanent, remaining in force even when the land changes ownership. The Barrington Area Conservation Trust ensures that all future owners honor the terms of the conservation easement.
5. Easements are expertly written by the Barrington Area
Conservation Trust staff and legal team, thus saving landowners the expense of drafting these easements themselves.
6. Easements are used to protect a wide variety of land, including farms, fields, forests, lakeshore, wetlands,
and scenic views, as well as green space in and around our villages.
How An Easement Document Might Look
Below is an example of how a legal conservation easement document might look. Click here or click the image to download a full-size PDF.
Examples of Different Types of Easements
Below are some examples of how conservation easements have been used in other communities to achieve land protection and provide landowners with significant benefits.
BUFFER PROPERTY AND TRAILS
A property owner with a beautiful oak savanna adjacent to a forest preserve property wanted to ensure that the trees were protected. The landowner put an easement on just the half of her property that contained the trees. The easement serves as a protective buffer between the forest preserve and any future development that might occur on the rest of her land. She now has protected the savanna she loves and enjoys reduced property taxes. Easements can also be put on riding and bike trails to protect them from development and changing ownership while providing tax benefits to the property owners.
A homeowner wanted to preserve the rustic character of his 12-acre property. A wetland on the site made the land environmentally valuable, but existing zoning permitted the property to be subdivided into 4-acre lots. The homeowner put an easement on the entire 12 acres, preventing subdividing and limiting use to a single-family dwelling. He received significant income tax and property tax benefits for his easement.
The patriarch of a family with a 300-acre farm listened to his children talk about what they will do with it in the future. The father’s priority was ensuring that the original home and farmstead were protected and that the rest of the property would be developed responsibly. The patriarch and his children worked with the land trust and his attorneys to map out an easement for the entire property that preserved the original 100 acres as open space and detailed how the remaining land could be subdivided and used. Drafting the easement forced the children to work out their differences. They also realized that the easement would provide important estate tax benefits that would allow them to keep all of the land in the family. The father and his children gained significant peace of mind and financial benefits by using a conservation easement to define the land’s future.
Here’s How Conservation Easements Work
When owning land, a person also “owns” many rights associated with land ownership, such as the right to build residences and buildings, subdivide the land, clear forest, place structures such as billboards and communication towers, and so on, subject to local zoning ordinances.
A property owner who enters into a conservation easement with the Barrington Area Conservation Trust permanently restricts some of these activities in order to protect the scenic and conservation values of the land.
Because every property is different, as are every property owner’s needs, no two conservation easements are alike. The easements are written to meet the needs and desires of the individual landowner while protecting the ecological and scenic integrity of the property. The specific activities the conservation easement prohibits are mutually determined by the landowner and the Barrington Area Conservation Trust.
Some landowners may wish to enter into a conservation easement that prohibits all activities that “interfere” with the natural state of the land. Other easements may only prohibit a few activities. For example, conservation easements for farms and less ecologically sensitive properties may allow for continued agricultural and forestry activities and the placement of some buildings and residences. Some easements may prohibit all subdividing, while others may allow for some subdividing, but only in a manner that continues to protect the land’s ecological integrity.
Most conservation easements apply to the entire property, but easements can also be written to apply to only a portion of the property. In addition, conservation easements do not allow for public access onto the property.
TAX INCENTIVES FOR DONATING CONSERVATION EASEMENTS
Income Tax Benefits
The donation of a conservation easement to the Barrington Area Conservation Trust can qualify as a tax-deductible charitable gift. For federal income tax purposes, the value of the conservation easement donation is the difference between the value of the land with the conservation easement and its value without the easement. A certified appraiser determines these values.
For example, suppose a property is appraised at $200,000 without any restrictions, prior to the conservation easement being placed on the property. The landowner then donates a conservation easement to the Barrington Area Conservation Trust limiting the amount of development that can take place. The new appraised value of the property — taking into account the development restrictions in the conservation easement — lowers the property value to $125,000. The difference between these two appraisal values — $75,000 — is the value of the tax-deductible charitable gift.
As a rule of thumb, the more restrictive the conservation easement, the larger the charitable gift. A conservation easement that allows subdivision and additional development will most likely result in a lower charitable gift.
Estate Tax Benefits
Conservation easements can also help families pass lands on to the next generation by reducing estate taxes. Because conservation easements may lower the fair market value of the property, the value of the estate being passed on to heirs may be reduced. Therefore, estate taxes — based on the value of the property — are reduced. This can make a critical difference in the heirs’ ability to keep the land intact.
Property Tax Benefits
When you grant a qualified conservation easement in Illinois, you can receive a 75 percent reduction in the assessed valuation of your property. Properties must meet IRS criteria qualifying conservation easements as charitable contributions. Most properties of more than 10 acres in the Barrington area usually qualify for these deductions because we are located in a an area of high conservation value, as noted in state land use and wildlife plans.
For more than a century, conservation easements have been used in the eastern United States to protect the charm of the countryside from encroaching development. As development pressures increase in the Barrington area, more Midwestern landowners are realizing that conservation easements provide the best tool to permanently protect the lands they love, while helping to preserve the rural character and natural beauty of their community.
Conservation Easement Q& A
Provided by the Land Trust Alliance
Why should I grant a conservation easement to a land trust?
People execute a conservation easement because they love their open space land and want to protect it from inappropriate development while keeping their private ownership of the property. Granting an easement to a conservation organization that qualifies under the Internal Revenue Code as a "public charity" - which nearly all land trusts do - can yield income tax savings. Moreover, land trusts, some of which are more than 100 years old, have the expertise and experience to work with landowners and ensure that the land will remain as permanent open space.
Are conservation easements popular?
They are very popular. In the 5 years between 2000 and 2005, the amount of land protected by local and state land trusts using easements doubled to 6.2 million acres. Landowners have found that conservation easements can be flexible tools and yet still provide a permanent guarantee that the land won't ever be developed. Conservation easements are used to protect all types of land, including coastlines; farm and ranch land; historical or cultural landscapes; scenic views; streams and rivers; trails; wetlands; wildlife areas; and working forests.
How can a conservation easement be tailored to my needs and wishes?
An easement restricts development to the degree that is necessary to protect the significant conservation values of that particular property. Sometimes this totally prohibits construction, and sometimes it doesn't. Landowners and land trusts, working together, can write conservation easements that reflect both the landowner's desires and the need to protect conservation values. Even the most restrictive easements typically permit landowners to continue such traditional uses of the land as farming and ranching.
What steps do I take to write a conservation easement?
First, contact Barrington Area Conservation Trust (847-381-4291) to become acquainted with our organization and our services. Together, we can explore the conservation values you want to protect on the land and discuss your goals and what development rights you may want to retain. For example, you may already have one home on your property and want to preserve the right to build another home. That is one provision that must be specifically written into an easement agreement. Always consult with other family members regarding an easement, and remember that you should consult with your own attorney or financial advisor regarding such a substantial decision.
How long does a conservation easement last?
Most easements "run with the land," binding the original owner and all subsequent owners to the easement's restrictions. Only gifts of perpetual easements can qualify for income and estate tax benefits. The easement is recorded at the county or town records office so that all future owners and lenders will learn about the restrictions when they obtain title reports.
What are a land trust's responsibilities regarding conservation easements?
The land trust holding the easement (such as BACTrust) is responsible for enforcing the restrictions that the easement document spells out. Therefore, the land trust monitors the property on a regular basis — typically once a year — to determine that the property remains in the condition prescribed by the easement document. The land trust maintains written records of these monitoring visits, which also provide the landowner a chance to keep in touch with the land trust. Many land trusts establish endowments to provide for long-term stewardship of the easements they hold.
Are easements sold or donated?
A landowner sometimes sells a conservation easement, but usually easements are donated. If the donation benefits the public by permanently protecting important conservation resources and meets other federal tax code requirements it can qualify as a tax-deductible charitable donation. The amount of the donation is the difference between the land's value with the easement and its value without the easement. Placing an easement on your property may or may not result in property tax savings.
To learn more about conservation easements, click here.