Why protect your land?
We are fortunate to live in an area of Chester County where development is relatively slow compared to townships like West Goshen and East Brandywine. London Britain Township enjoys the aesthetic mix of open farmland, forests, wetlands, and streams that nearly everyone finds appealing. This mix of habitat supports a wide variety of plant and animal life and opportunities for outdoor recreation. Moreover, having wetlands, protected stream corridors, and forests reduces water pollution, flooding, erosion, and other environmental problems, and provides a rural aspect to the landscape. Loss of open land to development, however, is a growing concern even here. In addition to loss of natural habitat, there is a corresponding increase in runoff and erosion every time land is developed.
Land is a non-renewable resource. Once developed, open land rarely, if ever, is converted back to natural habitat. Thus, the loss of open land represents a steady erosion of the rural landscape that has characterized our township for centuries. Land preservation gives us a choice about what landscape we will leave our children and grandchildren.
Of course, some development is inevitable in a growing community. Careful planning is required to protect the most important habitat and associated resources, to maintain an overall environment that can be sustained, and which provides the quality of life that township residents want. Because development increases the tax base, short-term planning generally favors it. Study after study, however, shows that the increased cost of infrastructure and loss of environmental quality, over the long run, favors long-term planning and carefully regulated development. Nature can be preserved over the long run only if residents plan for it, and insist that natural areas, farmland, and streams be prioritized for protection.
What are your conservation options?
Those wishing to protect their land from undesirable development or use after they no longer can oversee it have a variety of options that are reviewed here. It probably is not necessary to remind landowners that zoning, or even the needs or whims of close relatives, are subject to change. It is a sad commentary on society’s values that most people view land as a commodity, to be bought and sold for profit. Land, however, is a component of earth’s ecosystem which must function to maintain a healthy environment.
Conservation Easement: A conservation easement is a voluntary land protection agreement between a landowner and a non-profit entity, called a land trust (i.e. London Britain Township Land Trust), willing to hold and enforce the easement in perpetuity. The conservation easement is a legal document that becomes a part of the deed, restricting certain activities or uses, or subdivision. What is restricted is up to the landowner and the landowner’s family, although the London Britain Township Land Trust (LBTLT) will have an interest in both what is restricted and how it is stated in the document. The land trust will want to be certain that the easement protects the most important habitats and resources that contribute to the conservation value. This is often also the aim of the landowner. LBTLT will also want to avoid restrictions that it cannot easily monitor or enforce, such as hunting rights or trespass. These restrictions are better left to the landowner. Finally, it is important that the document be unambiguous, clearly define the area being protected, and fulfill all legal requirements. To this end, LBTLT will ask it’s attorney, familiar with conservation easements and the legal requirements, to review the final draft and offer any suggestions for improvement. Likewise, the landowner will have every opportunity to contribute to the development of the easement and have it reviewed by an attorney, if desired.
Conservation easements are especially attractive because you retain ownership and use of the property with only restrictions that you have agreed to place on the land. If you choose, you can continue to farm, practice forestry, hunt, lease, or otherwise enjoy your property as is. Landowners can also bequeath, sell, or give their property to whomever they choose. The property will always be restricted by the conservation easement regardless of who owns the property, and the land trust will monitor and enforce the easement in perpetuity.
Because donated conservation easements are viewed as charitable gifts to the public by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), they can provide significant tax advantages if they meet federal tax code requirements. Easements may be donated through your will or trust, or by an executor of an estate, although most landowners who want their land protected do so while they are able to oversee the development of the easement. Property restricted by conservation easement may also be assessed at a lower value. Check with your local assessor.
Land Donation: Landowners may choose to donate their land to London Britain Township Land Trust. This may be the best strategy for landowners who do not wish to pass the land to heirs and have no further use for the property that may represent a tax burden on the owner or the estate. By gifting it to LBTLT, a tax credit for the full value is realized. You receive the full tax advantage plus the satisfaction of knowing the land will be forever protected. This option is often greatly appreciated by both LBTLT and the community as a whole.
Purchase of Land or Easement: If you are not able to donate an easement or your land, but the land has exceptional conservation values which you and LBTLT have agreed should be protected, the land or easement might be sold to the land trust. LBTLT has very limited resources to purchase easements or land, but in rare cases might be able pursue grants and/or organize a fund-raising initiative to acquire the funds. Sometimes, in these rare instances, the landowner is willing to offer the easement or the land at below market price, and thereby contribute to the sale. The amount below fair market value, based on current appraisal, is a potential tax benefit.
Tax Incentives for Land Conservation?
For landowners, donating land or a conservation easement is a way to protect places they love. It’s also a major financial decision. When landowners donate a conservation easement, they give up part of the value of their property — often their family’s biggest asset. Tax incentives offset some of that loss in property value, making conservation a viable option for more landowners.
In 2015 Congress enacted one of the most powerful conservation measures in decades: the enhanced federal tax incentive for conservation easement donations. This permanent conservation easement tax incentive is a powerful tool that helps Americans conserve their land voluntarily. If you own land with important natural, agricultural or historic resources, donating a conservation easement can be a prudent way to both save the land you love forever and to realize significant federal tax savings.
This short brochure summarizes the conservation easement tax incentive and provides answers to some frequently asked questions: ConservationEasementTaxIncentiveBrochure2016.pdf