SMHT Color Logo 115x180px Donating Land

Frequently Asked Questions about Donating Land and/or easements to a Land Trust

Land Trusts (Information from the national Land Trust Alliance)
Conservation Easements
Benefits of Conservation
What Can I do?

Land  Trusts

 What is a Land Trust?
A land trust is a nonprofit organization that, as all or part of its mission, actively works to conserve land by undertaking or assisting in land or conservation easement acquisition, or by its stewardship of such land or easements.

 Are land trusts government  agencies?
No, they are independent, entrepreneurial organizations that work with  landowners who are interested in protecting open space. But land trusts  often work cooperatively with government agencies by acquiring or managing  land, researching open space needs and priorities, or assisting in the  development of open space plans.

 So, what are the advantages  of working with a land trust?
Land trusts are very closely tied to the communities in which they operate.  Moreover, land trusts' nonprofit tax status brings them a variety of tax  benefits. Donations of land, conservation easements or money may qualify  you for income or gift tax savings. Moreover,  because they are private organizations, land trusts can be more flexible  and creative than public agencies - and can act more quickly - in saving  land.

UPDATE: In August 2006 legislation was enacted increasing the tax benefit for donations of conservation easements. This legislation was extended to cover up to and including 2014.  Congress did not make the exteded benefits to landowners permanent as was hoped.

What does a land trust do?
Local and regional land trusts, organized as charitable organizations  under federal tax laws, are directly involved in conserving land for its  natural, recreational, scenic, historical and productive values. Land  trusts can purchase land for permanent protection, or they may use one  of several other methods: accept  donations of land or the funds to purchase land, accept a bequest,  or accept the donation of a conservation  easement, which permanently limits the type and scope of development  that can take place on the land. In some instances, land trusts also purchase  conservation easements.

I first heard about land  trusts just a few years ago. Are they new?
Not at all! A very few land trusts have already celebrated their centennials, but most are much younger. In 1950, for example, just 53 land trusts operated in 26 states. Today, more than 1,600 land trusts operate across the country, serving every state in the nation. The Northeast, home of the first land trust, still has the most land trusts - 581, according to the Land Trust Alliance's most recent National Land Trust Census.

What has contributed to  the huge growth in the number of land trusts?
People are tremendously concerned about the unmitigated loss of open space  in their own communities. They see subdivisions supplanting the open spaces  where they once walked and hiked, and they want to know how they can gain  the power to save the green spaces that make their communities unique.  So they turn to land trusts as the local entities that have been set up  to conserve land.

How do I start a land  trust in my community?
Land trusts are extremely effective vehicles for conserving land. But with more than 1,600 land trusts already in existence, starting a new land trust may not be necessary, timely, or the best approach to achieving your community's conservation goals. Given the time and effort it takes to run a land trust and the long-term commitment needed to protect land in perpetuity, the Land Trust Alliance encourages you to work with an existing land trust whenever possible. Find a listing at

Return to  Top of Page

Conservation  Easements

 What is  a Conservation Easement?
A conservation easement  (or conservation restriction) is a legal agreement between a landowner  and a land trust or government agency that permanently limits uses of  the land in order to protect its conservation values. It allows you to  continue to own and use your land and to sell it or pass it on to heirs.

 When you donate a conservation  easement to a land trust, you give up some of the rights associated with  the land. For example, you might give up the right to build additional  structures, while retaining the right to grow crops. Future owners also  will be bound by the easement's terms. The land trust is responsible for  making sure the easement's terms are followed.

 Conservation easements offer  great flexibility. An easement on property containing rare wildlife habitat  might prohibit any development, for example, while one on a farm might  allow continued farming and the building of additional agricultural structures.  An easement may apply to just a portion of the property, and need not  require public access.

 A landowner sometimes sells  a conservation easement, but usually easements are donated. If the donation  benefits the public by permanently protecting important conservation resources  and meets other federal tax code requirements it can qualify as a tax-deductible  charitable donation. The amount of the donation is the difference between  the land's value with the easement and its value without the easement.  Placing an easement on your property may or may not result in property  tax savings.

 Perhaps most important, a conservation  easement can be essential for passing land on to the next generation.  By removing the land's development potential, the easement lowers its  market value, which in turn lowers estate tax. Whether the easement is  donated during life or by will, it can make a critical difference in the  heirs' ability to keep the land intact.

     UPDATE: In August 2006 legislation was enacted increasing the tax benefit
    for donations of conservation easements. This legislation was extended to cover up to and including 2014.  Congress did not make the exteded benefits to landowners permanent as was hoped.


Why  should I grant a conservation easement to a land trust?
People execute a conservation easement because they love their open space  land, and want to protect their land from inappropriate development while  keeping their private ownership of the property. Granting an easement  to a conservation organization that qualifies under the Internal Revenue  Code as a "public charity" - which nearly all land trusts do  - can yield income tax savings. Moreover, land trusts, some  of which are more than 100 years old, have the expertise and experience  to work with landowners and ensure that the land will remain as permanent  open space.

Are conservation easements  popular?

They are very popular. In the 5 years between 2000 and 2005, the amount of land protected by local and state land trusts using easements doubled to 6.2 million acres. Landowners have found that conservation easements can be flexible tools, and yet provide a permanent guarantee that the land won't ever be developed. Conservation easements are used to protect all types of land, including coastlines; farm and ranchland; historical or cultural landscapes; scenic views; streams and rivers; trails; wetlands; wildlife areas; and working forests.

How can a conservation easement  be tailored to my needs and desires?
An easement restricts development to the degree that is necessary to protect  the significant conservation values of that particular property. Sometimes  this totally prohibits construction, and sometimes it doesn't. Landowners  and land trusts, working together, can write conservation easements that  reflect both the landowner's desires and the need to protect conservation  values. Even the most restrictive easements typically permit landowners  to continue such traditional uses of the land as farming and ranching.

What steps do I take to  write a conservation easement?

First, contact a land trust in  your community to become acquainted with the organization and the services  they can provide. Explore with them the conservation values you want to  protect on the land. Discuss with the land trust what you want to accomplish,  and what development rights you may want to retain. For example, you may  already have one home on your property and want to preserve the right  to build another home. That is one provision that must be specifically  written into an easement agreement. Always consult with other family members  regarding an easement, and remember that you should consult with your  own attorney or financial advisor regarding such a substantial decision.

How long does a conservation  easement last?
Most easements "run with the land," binding the original owner  and all subsequent owners to the easement's restrictions. Only gifts of  perpetual easements can qualify for income and estate tax benefits. The  easement is recorded at the county or town records office so that all  future owners and lenders will learn about the restrictions when they  obtain title reports.

What are a land trust's  responsibilities regarding conservation easements?
The land trust is responsible for enforcing the restrictions that the  easement document spells out. Therefore, the land trust monitors the property  on a regular basis -- typically once a year - to determine that the property  remains in the condition prescribed by the easement document. The land  trust maintains written records of these monitoring visits, which also  provide the landowner a chance to keep in touch with the land trust. Many  land trusts establish endowments to provide for long-term stewardship  of the easements they hold.

Return  to Top of Page

Benefits  of Conservation

 What are the economic  impacts to my community of conserving open space?
Many reports have shown that conserving open space in communities around  the U.S. attracts jobs, enhances property values, and saves billions in  government costs.

Are there tax benefits associated  with land protection?
There may be income and property tax benefits for donating your  land, donating a conservation easement, or selling the property as a "bargain  sale" at below market value. The amount and type of tax benefits  depends on a variety of factors, including the legal tool you've used  to protect you land, the value of the donation, your income level and  the total amount of your estate. Again, you should consult with a financial  advisor and/or an attorney to fully understand the tax implications. LTA  sells a variety of books and pamphlets that provide basic information  on this subject.

Return  to Top of Page

What  Can I do?

How can I protect my beautiful  open space land from future development?
By working with a nonprofit land trust, you can decide the best conservation tool to use to protect your land.  You can select from a number of tools, including the outright donation  of your property, the donation or sale of a conservation easement that  permanently restricts development, the bargain sale of your property,  and several other variations. You should always have legal advice before  embarking on such a decision.

Someone is about to  develop a beautiful piece of land in my community!  What can I do to stop  it?  The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service reports that between 1997 and 2001, 2.2 million acres were lost to development each year. The Land Trust Alliance's National Land Trust Census reports that from 2000 to 2005, local and statel land trusts conserved open space at a rate of over 1,000,000 acres per year. Many of the nation's land trusts were formed to address this problem - conserving our precious landscapes before they are lost forever to development. However, whether to develop or conserve a particular parcel of land is a complex decision that depends on many criteria and local concerns.

The Land Trust Alliance itself does not take positions for or against specific development projects or acquire interest in land. We urge you to support your local land trust that does. Go to The LTA’s 'Find a Land Trust' map and click on your state to see a listing of LTA member land trusts operating in your area.

Please note that a land trust  must be selective in choosing land-saving projects. Unless the land trust  exercises care in choosing its projects, it may find itself stuck with  a property or a conservation easement that serves little public interest,  is very costly to manage, or does not really fit with the land trust's  purposes. A land trust that does not carefully select its projects may  open itself to public criticism, credibility problems and even legal problems.

So get to know your local land  trust and volunteer your time, support it financially, or even donate  land or a conservation easement. That way, you can help your community  protect the land that you think is culturally, economically or environmentally  important.

Also, you may want to get involved  in your state or local planning activities. Planning agencies often provide  opportunities for public input on development issues that affect citizens  and you can request to be placed on their mailing lists to receive updates  on current and future plans for your area. Citizen input can improve the  planning process and positively affect future developments that may otherwise  be detrimental to the overall health of your community.

Thank you for your interest  in saving land!

How can I help in achieving  the goal of land conservation?
About half of the nation's land trusts are staffed entirely by volunteers.  Other land trusts use volunteers on a continuing basis for various needs,  including, sometimes, in helping to manage the land. Land trusts, and  the Land Trust Alliance, depend on your membership dues and contributions  to save America's open spaces. Contact  SMHT to find out how you can become active and supportive in Southern Madison County, NY.  At the same time, consider joining the national Land Trust Alliance.

Return to Top  of Page


Web Master Email

Southern Madison Heritage Trust
P.O. Box 117 - Hamilton, NY 13346

Banner photo by John Hubbard