Conservation Easements

The Interaction of Land Policy and Taxation
Joan Youngman, May 1, 1998

Conservation easements have become an important new tool for protecting environmentally significant open space. In the past, permanent restrictions against development often required outright purchase of the property by a governmental entity, land trust or other conservation organization. If the land remained in private ownership there was no assurance that a future heir or purchaser might not undertake construction on the site or sell it for development.

Conservation easements, which may be donated by landowners or purchased by conservation organizations or governmental agencies, provide permanent protection against development, but allow land to remain in private hands. This combination of open space protection and private ownership is a significant innovation that can address the conservation, planning and fiscal goals of landowners, conservation organizations and communities simultaneously.

Often those with the strongest appreciation for open space and commitment to its preservation are the families who have preserved their own land for generations and have no interest in selling it to a local government or environmental organization. Such organizations, in turn, rarely have the funds necessary for the outright purchase of all the land they seek to protect, and may not have the resources even to maintain land received by gift. Finally, ownership by governmental entities or charitable organizations generally results in an outright exemption of the land from property taxation. Continued private ownership coupled with a transfer of development rights leaves at least some portion of the property value on the tax rolls, thus benefiting the community at large.

What portion of the unrestricted land value remains taxable is a contentious and in many instances unanswered question, however. Some states that have adopted legislation permitting the establishment of conservation easements have determined that assessment of the land for property tax purposes must take this diminished development potential into account. Idaho statutes on the other hand assert that imposition of a conservation easement is not to affect property tax value. Many state laws are silent on the point, as is the Uniform Conservation Easements Act, a model law that serves as the pattern for a number of state enactments.

In many cases valuation of conservation land with restrictions is essential not only for property tax purposes but for calculation of a federal income tax deduction as well. Stephen Small is a Boston attorney who drafted the U.S. Treasury regulations on treatment of conservation easements as charitable donations of development rights. At a Lincoln Institute conference in Phoenix, Arizona, in February, he explained the detailed requirements that owners must meet in claiming this deduction.

Small also described the conservation implications of the demographic distribution of land ownership in this country. A large amount of property is now held by an older generation that has experienced enormous appreciation in the value of this asset. Estate tax planning will be crucial to the future use of this land. Small explained that in many cases conservation easements could reduce or eliminate pressure to sell family land for development in order to meet estate tax obligations.

The Phoenix conference brought together more than 120 specialists in land use, property taxation, appraisal and environmental issues to discuss valuation and legal aspects of conservation easements. Cosponsored with the Arizona chapter of the Nature Conservancy and the Sonoran Institute, this meeting was one in a series of similar conferences held by the Lincoln Institute over the past five years. The Institute welcomes inquiries from potential participants and cosponsors of future courses on this topic.

Joan Youngman is a senior fellow of the Lincoln Institute and director of the program on the taxation of land and buildings.