Conservation Easement Authority Begins Next Ten Years
Quick quiz. What’s a conservation easement?
A) A technique for maintaining the state or feeling of comfort or peace, as in the archaic “time brings easement.”
B) A voluntary, legally binding agreement that limits certain types of uses or prevents development from taking place on a piece of property now and in the future.
C) A device for easily keeping (or conserving) things, as with a photo album.
No points, if you guessed C. Partial credit for guessing A, as people who grant conservation easements often find great peace of mind. A gold star for knowing that a conservation easement is a way for landowners to voluntarily donate or sell some of the rights to their land to protect its environmental, agricultural, or historic values. Since the inception of conservation easements in 1960, they have become the most important tool for land conservation in America—especially in Clarke County.
This year, the Clarke County Conservation Easement Authority celebrates its tenth year of conserving farmland and open space. Since accepting its first easement in 2003, the Easement Authority has recorded 79 easements covering nearly 5,000 acres—a remarkable achievement by any measure.
The easement authority was established by the Board of Supervisors in 2002 to preserve land with significant agricultural, natural, scenic, and historic values. Combined with other easements held by the Virginia Outdoors Foundation—which has easements on more than 15,000 acres—and others, there are about 22,000 acres of “eased” land in Clarke County. That’s about 15 percent of the county, according to Alison Teetor, a Clarke County planner who works on the easement program,
So what’s an easement?
The classic explanation involves thinking of land rights as a bundle of sticks. When someone grants a conservation easement, they give away a stick or two—like development rights or clear-cutting forest land. But the owner retains ownership and use of the land, along with all other rights not granted in the easement—including the right to sell or bequeath their land in a will.
Teetor says there are three ways the county acquires easements: Purchasing easements based on appraised value, purchasing “Dwelling Unit Rights,” and donations from landowners.
Funding, says Teetor, comes from a range of sources, such as the Federal Farmland and Ranchland Preservation Program, Virginia’s agriculture department, the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, and the Resource Conservation and Development Council. “The easement authority also receives an annual appropriation from the Board of Supervisors,” said Teetor. “And over the last four years has received an average of about $25,000 in private donations.” The donations help offset the myriad costs of doing land deals, like appraisals and legal fees.
Donated easements account for the lion’s share of the acreage conserved by the easement authority—even the purchase agreements require the landowner to donate part of the value of the easement as a match.
Why would someone donate some of their land’s development rights? Stephen J. Small, a lawyer who works with families in land planning, famously says there are three reasons why people enter into an easement agreement: “They love their land, they love their land, and they love their land.”
There can be tax benefits, including federal and state income tax deductions. Virginia has an added sweetener: the transferrable conservation tax credit. It enables landowners who don’t have the income to benefit from tax deductions to make money by preserving their land. Say you donate an easement on 50 acres. The appraised value of the easement is considered a charitable donation, and in Virginia might qualify for the conservation tax credit (the legislature determines each year how many tax credits to allot). Your Virginia tax credit can be sold to a person or company for use in paying their tax bills.
It’s rare for subjects like land planning or public funding of anything to avoid criticism. Conservation easements, though, enjoy broad support across the political and ideological spectrum. They are, after all, voluntary.
Public funding for easements has its detractors, but data consistently show that conservation easements can pay for themselves by reducing need for public services and infrastructure. Teetor says each new home costs the county about $900 a year. She notes that the county saves close to $20,000 each year through the easements it already has—the difference between what the county spends on the program and what it saves by retiring development rights.
In 2012 the Clarke County Easement Authority’s board was one of five Governor’s Environmental Excellence gold medal winners—a shout-out from Richmond that says the Easement Authority’s operation is one of the most effective in the Commonwealth.