1. What is a Land Trust?
A land trust is a nonprofit organization that works with landowners to permanently conserve land using a legal agreement called a conservation easement. Land trusts can be local, state, or regional in scope, working with landowners to protect land that has natural, agricultural, scenic, historical, and/or recreational values.
2. What is a Conservation Easement?
A conservation easement is a legal agreement used to permanently protect a property from residential and commercial development. In legal terms, it is the granting of the conservation values of a property to a land trust so that they may protect and steward those values along with the landowner. Activities that impair those values, such as development, become permanently restricted while most private uses are still allowed.
3. What are Recognized Conservation Values?
To be eligible for financial benefits, a conservation easement must promote at least one of the following conservation purposes, as defined by the IRS:
- the preservation of land areas for outdoor recreation by, or for the education of, the general public.
- the protection of a relatively natural habitat of fish, wildlife, or plants, or similar ecosystem.
- the preservation of open space (including farmland and forest land) where such preservation is for the scenic enjoyment of the general public and of significant public benefit.
- the preservation of an historically important land area or a certified historic structure.
4. How do Conservation Easements work?
The granting of a conservation easement is a real estate transaction and therefore comes with certain costs and benefits, as identified below. After an easement is closed, it is deed stamped and recorded with the county and becomes permanently “attached” to the deed of ownership. The easement will not affect ownership of the property, but it will transfer with the deed to all future owners. The land trust, as the permanent grantee of the easement, will continue to work with future owners to steward the conservation values of the property.
5. What is allowed in a Conservation Easement?
While an easement does come with restrictions, it is also written specifically to meet the current and future needs of the landowner(s) by identifying reserved rights. These rights clearly define the activities the landowner wishes to continue to do on the property and involves most private uses, such as: personal residences, agriculture practices and structures, forestry management, open space and fence management, roads and trails, ponds and docks, hunting leases, and those commercial activities that are not in conflict with the conservation values of the property. These existing and future uses are written into the easement so that it is clear what is allowed and what is restricted on the property.
6. What are the benefits of a Conservation Easement?
First and foremost, conservation easements provide the benefit of creating a permanent conservation legacy for you and your family, but they also come with certain financial benefits. To begin with, all of these financial benefits are derived from the Value of the Easement:
- Calculating Easement Value: Every easement begins with an appraisal of the land at fair market value and also at an anticipated post-easement value. Because an easement takes away development potential of the property it will reduce the value of the land. The difference between these two values is the easement value.
- Tax Benefits: This easement value is accepted by the IRS as a non-cash charitable donation and can be used as a tax deduction for up to 15 years. South Carolina also offers state tax credits, which typically amount to a maximum of $250 per acre, with no expiration. All tax benefits can be applied toward the landowner’s personal income.
- Cash Benefits: In addition, most easements are eligible for direct funding from sources such as the South Carolina Conservation Bank. This funding is typically calculated as a percentage of the easement value and is provided as cash to the landowner at closing with limited or no restrictions on how it may be used.
- The Land Trust’s Role: the land trust will work with each landowner to manage the entire conservation easement process including applications for funding, writing and closing the easement.
7. What are the costs of a Conservation Easement?
Because easements are a real estate transaction, they do incur expenses. These expenses are related to due-diligence and closing costs inherit to the transaction. These may include appraisals, title insurance, attorney fees, environmental site assessments, and in some cases a new survey of the land. Most land trusts will also request a tax-deductible stewardship endowment donation that will be used to cover the cost of stewarding the easement in perpetuity. In nearly all cases, the funding and/or tax benefits that come with the easement will cover and extend well beyond the costs that are incurred.
8. How does Land Conservation directly benefit Agriculture?
In less than a generation, the United States has lost 11 million acres of farmland to expanding cities and suburbs. Today, there are nearly 2 million fewer owners of agricultural lands than in 1945. Approximately 40% of the nation's farmland is owned by people over the age of 65, which means that up to 370 million acres of farmland could change hands in the next 20 years. Our nation is on track to lose more than 18 million acres of farm and ranch land by 2040 – an area almost the size of South Carolina.
In addition, South Carolina is the third fastest growing state in the nation and some of our most productive farmlands are being converted to urban and suburban development. According to the American Farmland Trust, between 2001 and 2016 287,700 acres of farmland in our state were either developed or compromised from development. If this trend continues, by 2040 South Carolina will lose another 436,700 acres of farmland. That is the equivalent of 3,600 farms, $239 million in economic output, and 5,900 jobs.
For this reason, conservation easements are a valuable tool for producers that keeps farmland affordable for future generations, provides a present benefit, and ensures the capability of their land to produce food, fuel, and fiber for our state and our nation.
Sources: landtrustalliance.org, IRS.gov, and American Farmland Trust