A conservation easement is a legal agreement between a landowner and public or private entity, such as a land trust, or a government agency. An easement places a limit on how the land can be used in the future. For example, it may require that landowners eliminate all management on a given piece of land in favor of natural succession. Conservation easements typically emphasize conservation and environmental outcomes on the land.
An agricultural easement is a specific type of conservation easement. It is a legal agreement between a landowner and a public or private entity, but rather than focusing on conservation outcomes, it likely encourages continued agricultural use of the land. An agricultural easement typically will prevent conversion of land into another use, such as a housing subdivision, while allowing the farmer to continue using the land for agriculture.
For additional discussion see OSU Extension Fact Sheet CDFS-1261-98: http://ohioline.osu.edu/cd-fact/1261.html
Photo credit: http://clean.ohio.gov/images/home-farmland.jpg
From the perspective of a landowner, conservation or agricultural easements provide payments for protection of the land. The specific details of each easement will differ. In the case of an agricultural easement, landowners can continue farming for as long as their agreement allows them (likely in perpetuity). In the case of a conservation easement, landowners can often continue using the land however they used it in the past, although there may be some limitations on how they can manage the land. For example, they may be prevented from mowing the grass or cutting timber. Most easements prevent landowners from converting the use or management of the land to something else.
The typical conservation easement prevents the conversion of farmland, forestland, wetland, or other natural land to developed uses. Conservation or agricultural easements can also be written to guarantee specific uses of the land, such as in specific types of farming or specific levels of intensity in forest management.
From the perspective of a land trust or a conservation organization, easements provide conservation at a lower cost than if they had to purchase the land outright. In many cases, landowners may be unwilling to sell land outright, but willing to protect it or provide environmental amenities. In cases like this, easements provide an opportunity to protect land which otherwise may not be protected.
For a landowner, easements provide benefits and costs. The benefits typically involve cash payments, either upfront, or amortized over a specific time period. Because easements limit the future use of the land, they reduce the value of the land (because future owners are prevented from using the land in specific ways). The payments compensate the landowners for placing the easement on their land.
The value of the payments will be negotiated between the landowner and the organization that is paying for the easement. Typically the payment will be set at the difference between the value of land in a developed use and the value of the land in the current use. For instance, suppose the current use is farming, and the value of the land in farming is $3500 per acre. If developers are paying $6000 per acre for similar land nearby, then the value of the easement would be $2500 per acre, or $6000 - $3500. In this case, the conservation organization should pay at minimum $2500 per acre to place the easement on the deed.
Landowners who donate a conservation easement can obtain a tax deduction. In the example above, the tax deduction would be equal to $2500 per acre, which is the value the landowner has lost by placing a permanent easement on the land.
The cost of a conservation or agricultural easement is the lost future opportunity to use the land for something else. Because most easements are permanent, they will reduce the value of land in a future sale. In urbanizing areas, where land values are high and potentially growing, this can be a significant cost. Easements are placed on land and thus are transferred from one owner to another. They typically cannot be removed without the consent of the organization that purchased the easement.
Landowners need to hire a lawyer to be sure their interests are served when the easement, or restriction, is placed on the deed. They can request that the conservation organization pay their legal bills, but they need to be sure to hire their own lawyer, who looks out for their interests. Landowners should also be sure to obtain at least one independent estimate of the value of their land from a certified appraiser.
Photo credit: Katie Waller
Interested landowners should contact their local soil and water conservation district as a first step. There are also some excellent resources available on the internet. The Coalition of Ohio Land Trusts provides resources on their website (www.ohiolandtrusts.org), as well as lists of land trust organizations throughout the state.
There are some federal and state programs available for certain types of easements. The Ohio Department of Agriculture manages the Clean Ohio Fund, which provides funds for agricultural easements on working agricultural land. The US Department of Agriculture also has an agricultural easement program called the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program (FRPP). The Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program in Ohio is managed through the Ohio Department of Agriculture's Clean Ohio Fund. Information on both programs can be found at the following website: http://www.agri.ohio.gov/divs/farmland/farm_aepp.aspx
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Forestry manages the Ohio Forest Legacy program, which uses federal funding to place conservation easements on working forestlands. Information on the Forest Legacy Program can be found at: http://ohiodnr.com/tabid/5293/Default.aspx