What Are the Best Practices for Real Estate Development in Conservation Easements?

When it comes to land conservation and real estate development, conservation easements play a pivotal role. They allow landowners to preserve their property from certain types of development while maintaining ownership. As you navigate the complexities of these legal agreements, understanding best practices becomes essential. Let’s explore the cornerstone elements of conservation easements, their benefits to landowners, and how you can effectively apply them in real estate development.

Understanding Conservation Easements

Before delving into the best practices, it’s paramount that you understand what conservation easements are. Conservation easements are legal agreements that limit certain types of uses or prevent development on a piece of land. These easements are voluntary, meaning the landowner willingly enters into the agreement, often with a land trust or public agency.

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Conservation easements typically protect areas of significant natural or historical value. They may safeguard wildlife habitats, maintain water quality, preserve farmland or cultural sites.

The easement is attached to the land title, meaning it remains in effect even if the ownership of the land changes– a key factor to keep in mind for estate planning and will execution.

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The Role of the Easement Holder

Another critical part of the conservation easement puzzle is the easement holder. This is the entity, either a land trust or a public agency, that the landowner enters into the agreement with.

The holder is charged with enforcing the terms of the easement. They ensure that the land’s use aligns with the easements stipulations and the landowner’s original intent for conservation. They will monitor the property and address any violations of the agreement.

The holder also has rights under the easement, which often includes the right to access the property to ensure compliance and to take any necessary legal action to uphold the easement.

The Benefits of Conservation Easements

Conservation easements offer a multitude of benefits for landowners. They provide a way to protect land that you care deeply about, ensuring its conservation well into the future.

Easements also offer potential tax benefits. When a landowner donates a conservation easement to a land trust or public agency, they may be eligible for a federal income tax deduction. The amount of the deduction is typically based on the value of the easement, which is determined by a professional appraisal. In some cases, estate taxes may also be reduced or eliminated.

Moreover, conservation easements do not necessarily mean the public has access to your property. Public access is a term within the easement and is optional. You, as the landowner, can decide the degree of public access, if any.

Best Practices in Applying Conservation Easements in Real Estate Development

When integrating conservation easements into real estate development, it’s crucial to follow best practices. First, always work with an experienced legal professional who understands the nuances of conservation easements. They can help craft an easement that aligns with your conservation goals while adhering to state and federal laws.

Ensure that the easement’s terms are clear and specific. Vague or general language can lead to misunderstandings and legal challenges down the road. Also, make sure to include provisions for future changes or unforeseen circumstances. This could involve adding "amendment clauses" that allow for modifications to the easement under specific conditions.

Another best practice is to keep open lines of communication with the easement holder. Regularly updating them on any changes in land use or planned development can prevent violations and maintain the integrity of the easement.

Conservation Easements and Estate Planning

Incorporating conservation easements into your estate planning can offer benefits, especially if you wish to keep the land within the family. By limiting the potential for development, the easement can significantly lower the property’s market value, potentially reducing estate taxes.

Remember, an easement stays with the land title, not the owner. Therefore, heirs who inherit the property will also inherit the easement’s responsibilities and limitations. It’s essential to discuss your intentions with your heirs and make sure they understand the easement’s terms.

In conclusion, conservation easements are a powerful tool for land conservation and real estate development. By understanding their intricacies and following best practices, you can effectively use them to protect the land you love while realizing potential tax benefits. However, always seek professional advice to ensure your easement aligns with legal requirements and best serves your conservation goals.

The Role of Land Trusts in Conservation Easements

Land trusts play an instrumental role in the successful implementation of conservation easements. Often acting as the easement holder, these non-profit organizations work to conserve land by accepting easements, stewarding land and easements, and carrying out conservation transactions.

A land trust works with landowners to identify conservation goals for the property, customizing the easement to meet these goals. They ensure that the conservation values of the property, such as wildlife habitat, farmland, or open space, are protected in perpetuity.

Once the conservation easement is in place, the land trust is responsible for enforcing its terms. This involves regular monitoring visits to the property, reviewing proposed changes and, if necessary, taking legal action to correct violations.

Collaborating with a reputable land trust can provide landowners with peace of mind. These organizations have the expertise and resources to maintain the conservation objectives of the easement, ensuring that the property’s valuable resources are preserved for future generations.

While the land trust has the authority to enforce the easement terms, it’s crucial to remember that the landowner retains significant rights, including the right to privacy, the right to sell or lease the property, and the right to pass the property on to heirs.

Harnessing Tax Credits and Incentives

Conservation easements can offer substantial financial benefits, primarily through tax credits and incentives. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) considers the donation of a conservation easement to be a charitable gift, making it eligible for an income tax deduction.

The value of the donation, which equals the difference between the land’s value before and after the easement, can be deducted from the landowner’s income taxes. This deduction can be carried forward for several years, providing ongoing financial benefits.

In addition, some states offer tax incentives for land conservation, including state income tax credits, property tax reductions, and estate tax benefits. In some cases, these tax credits can be sold or transferred, providing an additional source of income for the landowner.

It’s worth noting that these tax benefits can be complex and are subject to specific regulations. Therefore, landowners should consult with an experienced tax professional or attorney to understand the potential tax implications of a conservation easement.


When appropriately used, conservation easements offer a win-win solution for land conservation and real estate development. They provide landowners with a vehicle to protect their cherished land, maintain its natural or cultural importance, and possibly reap significant tax benefits.

By partnering with a reputable land trust and following best practices, landowners can ensure that their conservation goals are met. Whether preserving a family farm, safeguarding wildlife habitat, or protecting open space, conservation easements are a powerful tool in the land conservation toolkit.

However, as with any legal agreement, it’s crucial to understand the responsibilities and limitations that come with a conservation easement. Therefore, seeking professional advice is paramount to ensure that the easement terms align with the landowner’s conservation objectives and legal requirements. With careful planning and execution, a conservation easement can protect a property’s natural values for generations to come.