Every spring since 2004, Esther and Pablo Elliott have tended the soil of their 91-acre organic farm, and every summer and fall they’ve been rewarded with broccoli, tomatoes, okra, chard and more. Just an hour’s drive from Washington, D.C., Stoney Lonesome Farm is the Elliotts’ passion and provides much of their livelihood. So in 2004, they were horrified to learn that the Commonwealth of Virginia was planning to slice a new highway exchange and electrical corridor through their treasured farmland.

The rumbling of nearby development started the family thinking about protecting their land for the long-term (although those particular projects have since been shelved or rerouted amid shrinking local budgets and public outcry). The Elliotts began discussions with the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, which is dedicated to preserving open space in the state, about the possibility of getting a conservation easement — a legal tool that limits future uses of a property and is administered by a land trust. At least 37 million acres of privately-owned woods, meadows, rivers, mountains, farms, and wildlife habitats nationwide have been protected using this method. That’s an area more than 16 times the size of Yosemite National Park, and the protected space has doubled in size in the last five years. The properties are monitored annually to make sure that the owners didn’t suddenly have a change of heart and try to sneak in a golf course or other forbidden development.

Conservation easements are not new, but thanks to recently expanded federal tax incentives and growing concern about dwindling open spaces, they are becoming increasingly popular. Last year was a banner year, according to the annual report of the Land Trust Alliance, an umbrella organization of land trusts that help people with CE’s. Many Land Trust Alliance members completed two to five times the number of conservation easements in 2007 as they had the year before.

Stoney Lonesome Farm is part of a property belonging to Pablo Elliott’s father, so any conservation easement would impact brothers, sisters and other potential heirs who might one day have a claim to the land. “An easement would be a big decision,” Esther Elliott says. “I’m pretty confident it’s the way forward, but we have to make sure we can accommodate everybody.”

Leslie Grayson, deputy director of the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, cautions that a conservation easement doesn’t provide 100-percent air tight protection against every possible threat. If a vital public works project can’t be feasibly relocated, a property could still be taken under eminent domain. It’s unlikely, but it can happen.

Another consideration is that conservation easements lower the appraised value of a property. To compensate for the loss, the federal government and certain states offer tax incentives. In the Elliotts’ case, for example, the owner could receive federal tax deductions plus state tax credits equal to the amount of the lost value. Virginia offers an added bonus: Owners who can’t use all their state credits can sell the extras for cash. This encourages those who are land-rich but cash poor; in a sense, conservation easements allow landholders to liquidate a portion of the value of their land without having to sell it and move away. And sometimes, says Sylvia Bates of the Land Trust Alliance, a lower appraised value can lead to reduced property taxes for the owner.

Dr. Roger Strand, a retired surgeon, wasn’t motivated by property values or the possibility of a reduced tax bill when last year, with help from the Minnesota Land Trust, he put a conservation easement on 396 acres located about 100 miles west of Minneapolis. Strand bought the property because of fond memories of hunting there as a boy with his father and brother. The timbered, rocky tract sits adjacent to state-owned parcels, and has a long ridge left behind by a receding glacier.

Today, his children and grandchildren join him on the property for hiking and hunting. Strand’s priority is to be a good steward of the land as well as a conservationist. “Anything we shoot here, we eat and make use of, period,” says Strand.

“I think 50 years from now it will be pretty unusual to have this corridor undeveloped. Because I grew up in it, it’s a great comfort to me to see my grandchildren and children enjoying it,” he says.

A Houston couple, Jan Cato and her husband, were motivated to execute a conservation easement out of concern for Texas’ dwindling wild places. In 1997, they purchased 6,000 acres in central Texas for the purpose of restoring it to its wild state and preserving it that way for perpetuity.

It took more work than they anticipated, but today mountain lions, endangered songbirds, and rare plants like the Tobusch fishhook cactus thrive on the Catos’ property. The Nature Conservancy, the land trust which finalized the Catos' conservation easement in 2007, offers guidance on land management strategies such as curbing invasive species through prescribed fires.

The Catos say their main motive in getting the conservation easement was to keep the open land intact and out of the hands of developers who could build on it. There’s a significant financial temptation for private landowners to sell to developers dangling dollar bills before their eyes; subdividing can reduce wildlife corridors and habitat, risk watershed quality, and have other deleterious environmental effects. Federal tax incentives made reducing the property’s value by millions of dollars easier to swallow for the Catos.

“It’s not an easy financial decision to make,” allows Jan, “but it’s an entirely satisfying inner decision.”

Story by Wendy Lyons Sunshine. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in November 2008.


Copyright Environ Press 2008

Conservation easements preserve open space
A legal strategy to protect privately-owned land in Virginia is growing in popularity nationwide.