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How Estate Planning With Conservation Easements Can Leave You A Legacy Of Stewardship

By Openlands’ Senior Counsel, Stacy Meyers and Staff Attorney, Molly Kordas

Our land and our homes are often the most important purchase that we ever make. The purchase is a reflection of our roots, our values, our families, and are very often the greatest asset that we have to give our children: a legacy for future generations. This Monday, October 19th kicks off the 2020 National Estate Planning Awareness Week. Congress acknowledged the power of “preserving assets built over a lifetime for the benefit of family, heirs, or charities” in its 2008 Resolution that designates this week. Yet the National Association of Estate Planners & Councils (NAEPC) estimates that more than half of Americans still do not have an updated estate plan.

As part of charting the course for the future of our families and the protection of beautiful private lands and waters in our region, conservation easements offer an often overlooked but powerful estate planning tool. People who own land can voluntarily enter into an agreement to sell or donate its development potential to a land trust or conservation agency to protect it. Since the vast majority of our open space is held in private hands, conservation easements are a way that people can be part of the solution for our communities to be healthier, protected from flooding, friendlier to wildlife and more resilient to climate change.

In addition to preserving our finest natural and agricultural lands, selling or donating a conservation easement offers substantial economic benefits. Selling the development value through a conservation easement can allow people to reinvest now in their agricultural businesses or help put their child through college. People who donate conservation easements can deduct up to 50 percent of their income over fifteen years, up to the value of the conservation easement. Doing so lowers property taxes, which means that the next generation can more easily afford to live on and enjoy the land while protecting beautiful natural landscapes.

Conservation easements are landowner friendly in that each agreement is tailored to their desires and needs and is a reflection of the specific conservation values of their land. These voluntary, intentional private agreements allow a family to decide everything from how the land will be used, and whether it will be open to the public, to how it will be maintained and cared for by the organization. Easements enable families to continue to live on their land for generations, while realizing enormous tax benefits for protecting our most beautiful places.

A similar type of agreement, the Agricultural Conservation Easement, allows a family to continue to live in a beautiful rural space and protect the water and land in ways meaningful to them.  People can continue to work the land and ensure the next generation can step into their shoes when they are gone. Agricultural easements afford a choice of partners to ensure the land is protected forever.

These easements can even be acquired using federal funding should you choose not to donate the land through programs such as the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, especially in some of the most beautiful parts of our state, like Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge. In addition, easements can be fantastic tools to defend against major threats to the agricultural industry on your own terms. When agricultural communities choose to maintain their character and culture, easements provide one of the tools they need to do just that.

Conservation easements may also overlap with nature preserves, affording these special places an added level of protection. A prime example of the success of this strategy is the Liberty Prairie Reserve, a nearly 6,000-acre patchwork quilt of public and private protections with landowners enjoying the benefits of their easements’ protections and tax benefits. This preserve is a living, breathing, healthy network of beautiful natural landscapes and farmland in Lake County. It is protected and cared for by local government bodies, passionate advocates and stewards, and many private landowners that love their land and want to be part of a natural legacy.  

Preserving your land through a conservation easement can involve planning, complex decisions and expense, but as Stephen J. Small, a leading authority on private land protection, explains, “In a much broader sense, . . . the deep satisfaction of permanently preserving [your] own land far outweighs any of the short-term work and costs.” If you are considering options to conserve your land, Openlands is be happy to answer any questions you might have. Please feel free to contact us at land@openlands.org for further information or visit our website.

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