What are conservation easements?

Big trees are hard to find.A conservation easement is a contract involving development of land.    

Landowners can sell or donate their rights to develop a parcel, while retaining ownership of the land itself for remaining purposes (often as farmland, forest or open space). 

Conservation easements are land deeds that transfer some property rights to a qualified non-government agency (land trust) or public agency, such as the Virginia Outdoors Foundation (VOF). 

Typically, landowners sell/donate the rights to develop most or all of the houses permitted by local zoning on their property.  If zoning permits 10 houses to be constructed on a 100-acre parcel, the landowner could retain the right to build one house but sell/donate the development rights to the other 9 houses to a land trust. 

With lower development potential, the value of the 100-acre parcel would drop substantially. Landowners are compensated through payments from Purchase of Development Rights Programs, tax credits, or both so the sale of a conservation easement makes financial sense to the private property owner.

Land trusts have permanent legal authority to enforce the terms of conservation easements.  If a future owner of a parcel with a conservation easement attempts to build an excessive number of houses or violate other terms of the deal (such as preservation of stream buffers), the land trust can go to court to enforce the terms of the deal.

Most conservation easements keep land private, but could be written to authorize public use on trails or even the entire parcel. When the objective is to limit development in order to preserve natural or historical values, a conservation easement may be appropriate.

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