While the word “trust” is often used to refer to certain legal instruments in the estate planning world, “land trust” is sometimes instead used to describe a nonprofit organization that holds an interest in land for conservation purposes or for the benefit of a certain community of people. In this blog, I review the concept of conservation land trusts.
What is a conservation land trust?
A conservation land trust is an organization that holds an ownership interest in land for the purpose of conserving that land for environmental or other similar uses. The goal of a conservation land trust is to own land or restrict its use so that other parties will not be able to develop the land. Conservation land trusts usually achieve this goal by either (1) purchasing, holding, and conserving the land, or (2) purchasing conservation easements on the land.
What is a conservation easement?
A conservation easement is a voluntary legal agreement between a landowner and a land trust organization. It allows the landowner to enjoy most of his or her private property rights in the land, but it nevertheless permanently restricts the use of the land so that it is conserved and not developed.
A conservation easement typically “runs with the land,” which means that the land, if sold, is sold subject to the same easement. While in some states a conservation easement can only run for a specified period of time (a “term easement”), in most cases, a conservation easement is perpetual (i.e., it lasts forever).
A landowner may be enticed to enter into a conservation easement agreement with a land trust organization either because (1) the organization pays the landowner for the easement, or (2) the landowner donates the easement to the organization and becomes eligible for certain property tax incentives. Note that the easement usually must be permanent in order for the donor to be eligible for tax incentives. A conservation easement is a useful tool for a conservation land trust because it is often a lower-cost conservation option than purchasing the land outright.
What is a farmland trust?
Land trusts can be formed for a variety of purposes. A farmland trust is a type of conservation land trust with the specific goal of preserving land for current or future agricultural use. As with other conservation land trusts, a farmland trust may achieve its goal by purchasing land and holding it specifically for agricultural use, or by obtaining an agricultural land easement on land that it does not own outright. Farmland trusts are ubiquitous in the United States, and can even be national in scope. For example, the American Farmland Trust is a national organization with the goal of preserving farm and ranch land for agricultural uses, and also promoting environmentally sound farming practices.
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