A Conservation Easement is a legal document in which a landowner agrees to permanently refrain from certain uses of his property in order to preserve the environmental integrity of the land. After signature, it is recorded in the public deed records so that it is binding on any subsequent owner of the property. Often confused with "positive easements" such as rights-of-way, a conservation easement is a "negative" easement that imposes restrictions. In other words, the easement prevents the landowner from using the property to the maximum extent allowed by current zoning.
A conservation easement typically reduces the number of residential housing units that are allowed by zoning. It also prohibits the destruction of vegetation or extraction of minerals. It prescribes management practices to which the landowner must adhere and which are detailed in the document. For example, agricultural lands may be required to be farmed by the then-current techniques determined by an independent expert. It also requires compliance with local, state, and federal regulations. A conservation organization is required to monitor the practices of the landowner.
Backing up the terms of the conservation easement is a document (Baseline Documentation Report), kept on file by the conservation organization, that presents the existing conditions of the property and the current management practices. This document serves as a baseline for future monitoring and is updated annually as part of the monitoring program. If changes are made to the property that are agreeable to the conservation organization, they are recorded in the baseline documentation report.
The conservation easement document is perpetual. Since the document is recorded in public deed records, when the property is sold the easement will show up on the title report and will be binding on future owners. The document also includes a cy pres provision, which mandates any court that might be required to find a new organization to hold these rights to find a similar organization to accept the conservation easement.
To be considered a "qualified conservation contribution" for the purpose of tax deduction, the easement must be perpetual and donated to a qualified conservation organization. It must also satisfy one or more of the following general standards. It must: 1) conserve land area for the general recreation or education of the general public; 2) protect a natural habitat or similar ecosystem; 3) preserve open space if it yields a significant public benefit; or 4) preserve a historically important land area or certified structure.
Conservation Easement Criteria
Pennsbury Land Trust is recognized by the Internal Revenue Service as a public charity enabling donors of land and conservation easements to be eligible for significant tax benefits from their donations. In order for a donor to realize those benefits, however, Pennsbury Land Trust must be able to demonstrate that any such donation results in a genuine public benefit. In addition, it is necessary for Pennsbury Land Trust to be certain that it can fulfill the stewardship responsibilities associated with accepting the donation.
Pennsbury Land Trusts uses ten criteria to evaluate prospective conservation easement donations. Each donation is evaluated on its own merits and donations need not fulfill all ten criteria.
- The property is in active agricultural use.
- The property buffers agricultural land, wildlife habitats, or other sensitive areas.
- The property includes important wildlife habitats and/or known migration routes.
- The property is in a relatively natural, undisturbed condition.
- The property is visible to the public from roadways, waterways, or recreational areas.
- The property shares a common boundary with publicly preserved land or other significant open space.
- The property is in close proximity to private land that is already preserved or likely to become permanently preserved.
- The development of the property would diminish scenic views or interfere with views across protected open space.
- The property affects the integrity of a significant watershed area, creek, pond, or other body of water.
- The property is of sufficient size that its significant features are likely to remain intact in spite of adjacent development.