Conservation Easements FAQ

Here are answers to some common questions about conservation easements.  The best source for answers you may have about an easement on your own land is a local land trust.  Use our directory to find a land trust working near you.

If there is an easement on my property, does the land trust have control of my property?

Organizations holding easements have responsibility to make sure the terms of the easement are being honored, but they do not have control over or ownership of any part of the property.

What rights are typically restricted through an easement?

Conservation easements are relatively flexible tools, and the restrictions on
land use varies easement to easement, depending upon the landowner’s needs, the mission of the land trust holding the easement, and most importantly, on the conservation values of the property. Typical easement restrictions include limitations on subdivision or development of the property, limits on uses that would cause erosion or degredation of habitat, and limits on commercial or industrial use.  Also, the easement holder must also be able to enforce restrictions in an easement -- while it may be the desire of a landowner to prohibit jet ski traffic, for example, that would not be a practical stipulation for a land trust to enforce.

Conservation easements protecting working farms, often known a Purchase of Development Rights agreements, typically have a unique set of land use restrictions designed to keep the land available for viable agricultural enteriprises.  For more information about easements on working lands, visit www.wisconsinfarmland.org for information about Wisconsin's working lands easement program.

How much will I save on my income taxes if I donate a conservation easement?

If you donate and easement, or part of the value of one, you may achieve some income tax benefit for that gift. Easements need to be appraised by a professional appraiser following very particular rules for valuing easements for tax purposes. Depending on each individual’s tax profile, that value may make a significant difference in his Federal income tax that year. If the easement does not change the value of the property very much—say it protects wetland bird habitat that was not very marketable as development property, anyway—the impact on one’s tax return may be small.

Tax rules have changed in recent years.  For more detailed information about the tax benefits of working with a land trust, see our landowner information sheets

The best source of information about tax benefits is an attorney or financial advisor familiar with conservation easements.

What about public access? If I have an easement on my land, can anyone come hunt there?

Many conservation easements do not allow for public access onto private property, but they can, and some do.  It is up to the landwoner and land trust: if one donates an easement for educational purposes, for instance, it would not follow to prohibit public use of the land! If a landowner donates an easement because he is concerned about a special view or endangered species, that easement may well prohibit public access.

How much will an easement be worth?

It is very hard to "ball park" the value of a conservation easement.  An easement's value depends on the specific terms of that agreement.  An easement disallowing any development on a bluff top with a river view in an area with many vacation homes may case a significant decrease in the market value of the land and the easement value may be high.  Professional appraisers determine the value of conservation easements by evaluating the property without an easement, then subtracting the market value of the property once the easement has restricted land use on the property. The difference of the two is the value of the easement.

Conservation easements should be valued only appraisers with specified licenses and easement appraisal expereince.  The Colorado Coalition of Land Trusts has complied very thorough guide to conservation easement appraisals here.

Will an easement lower my property taxes?

Many landowners hope that recording a conservation easement on their property will reduce property taxes. That is not always the case. The rules governing property tax assessment in Wisconsin require only that assessors 'consider' the effect of the easement. In some cases, assessments have not changed, in others they have been reduced. For more discussion see a 2002 report, The Impacts of Conservation Easements on Property Tax in Wisconsin.

What if my children want to build a house on the land, or I want a hunting cabin?

Many easements allow for some building. Easements are very flexible tools. If you are considering an easement, it is helpful for to discuss with your family what goals you have for the property so that all those hopes are communicated at the beginning of conversations with a land trust, and the easement can accommodate those long-term visions.

Are conservation easements revokable?

It is very difficult to extinguish a conservation easement.  Conservation easements are designed to protect natural resources in perpetuity. They can be extinguished only by a judge and only in very specialized circumstances.  Easements may be effectivley extinguished by the power of imminent domain—condemnation of the land for public purposes like a road or powerline.

There are such things as "term easements," land use agreements with an expiration date, but those are rare and don't have the same legal character (they do not qulity for any tax benefits) as most conservation easements.

How do I know that the land trust will last forever?”

Forever is a long time, and the honest answer is that no one can know if a land trust will last in perpetuity. The land trust movement is full of organizations committed to lasting conservation, and many land trusts have invested a good deal in their organization's sustainability.  Landowners and families considering a conservation easement should ask for information from the land trusts about their sustainability, what systems they have in place to ensure the organization will be able to steward the easement forever?  What are their policies for monitoring and, if necesary, defending their easements? 

photo courtesy of Gil Grib

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