What is a conservation easement?

A conservation easement is a voluntary legal agreement between a property owner and a land trust intended to preserve land in perpetuity.  Although filed with the deed, it does not transfer land ownership, but rather spells out a landowner’s commitments to protect the existing character of his or her property, which may include limitations on land use and construction. The drafting of the document can be flexible and may be written to conserve land in accordance with the landowner’s wishes, but in all cases the easement must be approved by RELC’s board.

If I give a conservation easement, do I still own and control my property?

Yes. Only the specific use rights that a landowner chooses to donate are removed from your property.  You can still own, transfer to others, sell, lease, mortgage, build upon, farm, or otherwise use your property consistent with the terms of the conservation easement.

Does a conservation easement require me to allow public access to my land?

No. The conservation easement does not give the public any rights to your land unless you decide to include such rights in the easement.

To whom is a conservation easement given?

A conservation easement can be given either to a qualified non-profit organization, such as RELC or a government body, such as a town, county, or state agency. The recipient of the conservation easement must accept it in writing and agree to enforce the terms of the conservation easement to ensure that future owners of the property abide by it. Rondout-Esopus Land Conservancy is a non-profit organization that is qualified to accept and hold conservation easements that satisfy its preservation criteria.

How is a conservation easement enforced?

A conservation easement is enforced by the organization or public body that holds it, by court action if necessary.  Some easements name another entity as a back-up holder in case the original holding organization is unable or unwilling to ensure compliance with the easement. If the original donee organization ceases to exist, the easement is transferred to a similar entity that has the powers to enforce it. The organization that holds the easement is responsible for monitoring it regularly to ensure that the current landowner is complying with the terms of the easement.

What is the difference between a conservation easement and a deed restriction?

A deed restriction (also called a “restrictive deed covenant running with the land”) is similar to a conservation easement, but there are some significant differences. While deed restrictions may in some circumstances be easily eliminated by the mutual consent of landowners or court action, it is much more difficult to amend or remove a conservation easement. Deed restrictions may only be enforced by specified adjoining landowners who benefit direction from the restrictions, while conservation easements can be enforced by entities that do not own adjoining land and that do not necessarily derive an economic benefit from them. To ensure maximum effectiveness, a deed restriction may be used jointly, since enforcement by neighboring landowners may be advantageous but is only possible through deed restrictions.

Can I donate a conservation easement and still develop my land?

Yes, as long as development complies with the terms of the agreement. A conservation easement can be used to control the number, location, and design of buildings, thus ensuring that a quality development plan is maintained in perpetuity. Used in this manner, an easement may be able to enhance the value of each lot created.

Can a conservation easement assure the protection of open space set aside in a cluster development?

Yes. One of the biggest concerns that towns have in approving cluster developments is that the land set aside as open space today may become developed in the future.  Requiring a cluster developer to place a highly restrictive conservation easement on land set aside as open space is the most secure way to protect it from future development. It is also a tool that can be used to place the protected open space in the private hands of one or more large estates or farms, rather than in a possibly unwieldy homeowners' association.

Conservation easements can also be used in connection with private roads. Many towns are unwilling to approve private roads or town roads built to minimum specifications because of the concern that as an area develops, the road system will require future upgrading at town expense. If towns require perpetual conservation easements limiting the total number of units that can be served by such roads, they can approve these roads without worrying about future overdevelopment or public expenditure. The alternative is that a developer will eventually build full-scale suburban roads, resulting in cookie-cutter developments that will destroy the intended open space.

Will conservation easements reduce my property taxes?

Maybe. Tax assessments are made by local assessors based on the fair-market value of property. In fact, much rural land is actually under-assessed relative to developed land, in recognition of the fact that undeveloped land does not demand municipal services and that raising the assessments will potentially place development pressure upon it (resulting in higher demand for municipal services and expenditures). Thus, in some communities land subject to conservation easements may already be assessed at less than fair-market value. Logically, a highly restrictive conservation easement that reduces a property’s market value is sometimes reflected in a lower assessment, but this decision falls within the discretion of the local assessor.

Much land under easement already receives special tax treatment through either the Agricultural Districts Law (Section 25AA of the Agriculture and Markets Law) or the Forest Tax Law (Section 480-a of the Real Property Tax Law). A conservation easement would have little impact on land enrolled in these programs, since assessors are free to use their discretion regarding easements, while the agriculture and forestry exemptions are mandatory.

Are there other tax advantages in donation conservation easements?

Yes. The principal advantage is the potential charitable deduction from state and federal income taxes.  A taxpayer may deduct as a charitable donation the difference in value between the land before an easement is donated (unrestricted land value) and after it is donated (restricted land value).  If the easement is highly restrictive, this could amount to a large tax deduction. In order to qualify for the tax deduction, the land involved must meet certain IRS criteria to establish a public benefit, such as scenic enjoyment by the general public, preservation of natural ecosystems or historic sites, or public education or recreation.  

Under the Alternative Minimum Tax provisions of the Tax Reform Act of 1986, there is a strong possibility that a deduction could be limited to the owner’s “basis” (acquisition cost) in the land, rather than the fair market value of the easement. Only a careful review with personal tax advisors will reveal whether this would be a problem for individual landowners. Easements can also result in significant estate tax savings as well.

RELC is not able to provide tax or legal advice and we strongly recommend that potential donors consult with their tax and legal advisors.

Won’t conservation easements limit the availability of needed housing?

No. Good planning dictates that new housing should be concentrated in those areas best able to service it with roads, water and sewer facilities (infrastructure), and employment and shopping opportunities. Conservation organizations do not accept easements on land that should be more appropriately developed for housing. In those areas where large-scale development is appropriate, conservation easements will only be accepted in connection with open space set aside as part of planned cluster developments or to preserve scenic or ecologically sensitive areas such as wetlands, stream corridors and riverbanks, and steep hillsides.  

Most conservation easements are placed on land in sparsely populated rural areas, where good planning requires the preservation of open space and the retention of land in large tracts to keep agriculture a viable industry. A conservation easement strategy goes hand-in-hand with capital improvements to infrastructure, in order to concentrate development in those areas best able to service it. In this way, an adequate supply of housing at high enough densities continues to be affordable can be created.

Don’t conservation easements erode the tax base?

Generally, conservation easements have little or no impact on the real property tax base, particularly in the Hudson Valley. Easements may, in some instances, actually help stabilize and lower tax rates. One advantage of using conservation easements is that land under easement remains in private ownership and on the tax rolls, unlike publicly owned land.

In developed communities, open land represents a negligible proportion of the tax base.  Even if a conservation easement were to result in a slight tax break for the landowner, the impact on a tax base comprised mostly of residential buildings would be imperceptible. In rural communities, most land coming under conservation easement already enjoys property tax benefits under either the Agricultural Districts Law or the Forest Tax Law, and the conservation easement adds no further tax reduction.

In any area, a small reduction in the taxable valuation of eased property would be more than offset by the enhanced taxable value of the surrounding properties. Property surrounding parks and preserves generally commands premium prices.

Finally, conservation easements provide important public benefits, not only in the open space amenity they provide, but also fiscally. Keeping haphazard development out of rural areas slows the growth in the property tax rate. It has been documented that increased residential growth always brings higher taxes, since demand for municipal services increases faster than the tax base. Limiting the growth and channeling it toward existing population centers is a better way to stabilize the tax rate and can be accomplished using conservation easements.

Providing local property tax relief would therefore create an incentive for landowners to place conservation easements on their land and would, far from eroding the tax base, help to keep local property taxes down.

Where can I get a sample conservation easement?

The Conservancy has a template easement document designed to be adapted by each landowner to his or her individual needs and circumstances. The document sets forth, in plain English, an approach to land protection that maximizes the landowner’s flexibility and minimizes administrative burdens for both the landowner and the Conservancy, keeping protection of the rural character of the land as the paramount goal. Copies of this model easement can be obtained on request.