Conservation Easements

Woodpecker Ridge Conservation Easement Botetourt County, VA
Conservation Easement, Botetourt County, VA

Conservation easements are an important tool for conservation. 

Conservation easements protect millions of acres of privately owned land throughout the United States. In Virginia alone, there are over 187,500 acres that are protected under easements held by nonprofits like VCC, and about 1,210,000 acres are protected by easements of all kinds. Easements protect land of natural or agricultural importance including farmland, wildlife habitat, open space, scenic land, or land for recreational uses. With conservation easements, landowners can protect their property permanently while at the same time maintaining the rights and benefits of land ownership – living on their land, selling it as they wish, or passing it to their heirs. 

Unlike other land trusts in Virginia, Valley Conservation Council has no minimum acreage requirements for our easements and evaluates each property individually for conservation values. No two parcels of land are exactly the same, and no two landowners share identical situations or goals for their property. Likewise, each deed of easement is unique and specially written and formatted to ensure the land and the landowner will gain the most benefit from the easement. Easements ensure that each parcel of land is kept productive, beautiful, and ecologically diverse for years to come. 

What is a Conservation Easement? 

A conservation easement is a legal agreement in which the landowner retains ownership, use, and enjoyment of their property while they convey certain specific rights to the holder of the easement. The easement protects against land subdivision and keeps the land protected for agriculture, wildlife habitat, and recreation.  

The easement holder is a third party that commits to seeing that the easement terms are upheld by future owners of the land. Therefore, the holder needs to be a carefully chosen partner. Conservation easement holders are typically charitable land trusts such as VCC or public agencies such as the Virginia Outdoors Foundation or the Virginia Department of Forestry. 

Unlike some land protection agreements, easements are voluntary and flexible, and permanent. They protect land with conservation values such as farmland, forests, special wildlife habitats, watersheds, and scenic landscapes. While they restrict the number of divisions and amount of development on a property, they allow for farming, forestry, recreation, and other compatible uses. And they may provide generous tax benefits to the landowner. 

What are some types of conservation easements? 

Conservation easements vary by the resource they are designed to protect. They all offer the same basic options and benefits to landowners. In order to qualify for federal tax advantages, an easement must be permanent and provide a public benefit by upholding conservation values or protecting natural resources. In Virginia, all conservation easements must comply with local land-use policies including their compatibility with the local comprehensive plan. 

A property rich in natural and historic resources may qualify in a number of categories and use a number of restrictions. For example, a farm that has scenic views, adjoins a stream, has soils of national or state importance, and whose owner allows public access to a wildlife viewing trail may provide for all of these benefits and, thus, justify each category of restriction. 

Types of conservation easements that VCC Holds: 

  • Open space easements (often used to protect farm and forest land) 
  • Riparian easements (used to protect streams, rivers, and their floodplains) 
  • Scenic easements (used to protect view-scapes as well as scenic corridors) 
  • Public recreation easements (used to protect land with recreational opportunities such as hiking, fishing, and bicycling) 
  • Wildlife habitat easements (used to protect high-quality native ecosystems or landforms, or to protect the habitat of rare, endangered, or threatened species, or to protect the ecological viability of an area) 

What are some conservation easement myths? 

  • You can’t farm, hunt, fish, or harvest timber. 
    • REALITY: All traditional uses are permitted, and specific terms are set on an easement-to-easement basis
  • It gives the government control of your land. 
    • REALITY: Actually, it may help to protect against eminent domain. 
  • You must have 100 acres or more. 
    • REALITY: VCC does not have a minimum acreage requirement, all parcels are judged based on their individual merits – not size. 
  • It prohibits all development. You can’t even put up a doghouse on an easement. 
    • REALITY: You negotiate the terms of the deed (including the divisions and dwellings) and ‘building envelopes’ are set aside for current and future building
  • You can’t sell your land or leave it to your heirs. 
    • REALITY: You can sell your land or leave it to heirs, but the easement restrictions remain 
  • You have to grant public access. 
    • REALITY: Not required – eased land is still considered private property unless explicitly specified otherwise. VCC staff will make a yearly monitoring visit but will provide landowners with advanced notice so that the landowner may accompany the visit if they wish

What are some of the benefits to the landowner? 

The benefits of a conservation easement include the permanent protection of the land while it is still privately owned. The protection is tailored to the needs and wishes of the landowner and the attributes of the property itself. Easements help to ensure that land with conservation and sentimental value doesn’t get subdivided and separated from what makes them special.

What are the tax benefits of conservation easements? 

General information can be found here: https://www.tax.virginia.gov/land-preservation-tax-credit  

Valley Conservation Council is not qualified to give financial advice, please contact your tax advisor for more details about what tax benefits you may be eligible for.   

 

Interested in an easement? Please contact VCC to discuss your options: info@valleyconservation.org or 540-886-3541. 

 


VCC’s primer, A Landowner’s Guide, is available here that provides helpful information to property owners about conservation easements, agricultural and forestal districts, gifts of land, and much more.


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Contact Us:

Valley Conservation Council
P.O. Box 988
Staunton, VA 24402
Phone: 540-886-3541
info@valleyconservation.org

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