Many tools are used by land trusts and landowners to save land, but conservation easements (CE) are the most popular today. They preserve a land’s conservation values by permanently retiring some or all of the development rights of the property. The protected conservation values might include wildlife habitat, open space, scenic views, recreational assets or agricultural use.
The term “conservation easement” is often misunderstood. CEs need not allow public access to your property. But every CE must provide a “significant public benefit” to qualify for potential tax benefits and the participation of a land-trust organization such as the Santa Fe Conservation Trust (SFCT) in its establishment.
As a landowner, you continue to own, use and manage your land, subject to the development limitations created by the easement. You may sell, lease, bequeath or mortgage the property like any other landowner. However, the property always remains subject to the CE created in the deed.
The benefits to a landowner are many. Most take great pride in the land legacy they have created for future generations. They are relieved to know that the land they love will remain much as they know it under the careful stewardship of an organization such as the SFCT.
There are tax- and estate-planning benefits to consider. The fair market value of your property is usually diminished by the creation of the restrictions in the CE. When you donate the CE to a land trust, you may be entitled to a federal income tax deduction or state tax credit based on the land’s reduced value. In addition, the creation of the CE may be a useful estate-planning tool because it reduces the taxable basis of the property in your estate.
The CE is created through a Deed of Conservation Easement, a legally binding agreement, which spells out the conditions that will govern the future use of your land. The SFCT will work as your partner and guide and will help you make informed decisions by explaining the process, the documentation requirements and the financial commitments that are part of the transaction. The SFCT, of course, urges landowners to seek the counsel of their financial planners and legal advisers when preparing a CE.
Since 1993, SFCT has written 77 CEs protecting over 34,000 acres of land in northern New Mexico. SFCT is the only Santa Fe-based land trust accredited by the national Land Trust Accreditation Commission. SFCT knows that each landowner is different and that each parcel of land is unique. The SFCT will work to craft an agreement that works for you and your family, the land and our community.
To learn more about conservation easements, contact Charlie O’Leary at the Santa Fe Conservation Trust, 505.989.7019 or Charlie@sfct.org
David Fleischaker is a board member with the Santa Fe Conservation Trust.