A conservation easement is a voluntary legal agreement between a landowner and an entity such as the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food (UDAF) or a Land Trust, that permanently restricts the use of the land to protect its conservation values. Conservation values include working agricultural lands for farming and grazing, scenic open space, wildlife habitat, wetlands, and natural waterways, and important cultural or historical sites.
Easements offer great flexibility while providing a permanent guarantee that the land will not be developed. For example, an easement on property containing rare wildlife habitat might prohibit any development, while one on a farm might allow continued farming and the building of additional agricultural structures. The goal is to ensure the long-term protection of agricultural land, while leaving day-to-day management decisions up to the landowner and allowing flexibility to adapt to changing environmental or market conditions.
Easements are perpetual (enforceable forever) and run with the land. They are binding on all future owners of the property. An easement cannot be extinguished or amended except by judicial proceedings, however they are not immune to condemnation. Conserved properties can still be passed on, mortgaged, or sold.
WHY WOULD A LANDOWNER WILLINGLY GIVE UP THEIR RIGHTS?
Landowners have a deep connection to their land and know that undeveloped properties provide gifts to their communities of local food and other agricultural products, clean air and water, wildlife habitat and scenic beauty. Landowners can also qualify for certain financial compensation for placing a restrictive easement on their property. 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 with the IRS. The amount of the donation is the difference between the land’s value with the easement and its value without the easement. The landowner can deduct between 50-100% of their AGI and the deduction can be carried forward for up to 15 years.
For properties with extraordinary conservation values that significantly contribute to the public good, grant funding is available to compensate the landowner for the value of the easement. Funding is limited and highly competitive. Most easements are either donated or sold in a “Bargain Sale” where the landowner receives less than the full appraised value of the easement and donates the remainder.
CONSERVATION EASEMENT PROCESS:
This process is very similar to a real estate transaction and will require the sharing of information such as mortgages, liens, title commitments, and other encumbrances. Copies of water rights, leases, other easements, and other contractual arrangements on the property will also be needed. Each step is an important part of the process and is necessary to comply with state and federal guidelines as well as UDAF policies for conservation easement transactions.
Because conservation easements can be an important part of estate and tax planning, it is strongly suggested that you seek legal and tax advice from trusted, qualified professionals. UDAF cannot provide you with legal or tax advice.
A summary of some key steps in pursuing and closing a conservation easement are as follows:
- Identify the property’s unique conservation values.
- Identify who will be responsible for holding and enforcement of the easement (Land Trust, UDAF, etc.) and agree upon a strategy.
- Letter of Intent signed and landowner consent to proceed.
- Gathering of preliminary information such as deeds, title reports, surveys, etc.
- Negotiation of specific terms and conditions of the conservation easement.
- Fundraising to cover easement purchase, transactions costs, and stewardship as needed.
- Completion of necessary due diligence items such as minerals assessments and Phase 1 Environmental Reports.
- Conservation easement and baseline documents are drafted and discussed.
- Obtaining a qualified UASFL or USPAP appraisal meeting the requirements of funding partners.
- Completion of a baseline documentation report.
- Legal review by the landowner (or legal representative) and holder’s legal counsel.
- Submitting all documents for approval by funding partners.
- Close of purchase by signing and recording the conservation easement deed.
READY TO CONSERVE YOUR PROPERTY?
LEARN MORE ABOUT UDAF’S CONSERVATION PROGRAMS:
- Soil Health Program
- Animal Feeding Operations
- Agricultural Protection Areas
- Agricultural Loan Programs
- Agricultural Water Optimization Program
- LeRay McAllister Working Farm and Ranch Fund
- Salinity & Ground Water Program