Conservation Easements; The Unsung Heroes in Environmental Policy

In recent years, media outlets, politicians, and the public have increasingly focused their attention on environmental policy, deeply impacting the environmental qualities that enhance our daily lives. These actions have ranged from protests against pipelines, to President Trump cutting the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget by over 30% to fight against a perceived over-burdening bureaucracy.  It is important to note that much of the attention and initiatives from citizens and politicians have been directed mostly at the national and state levels, thereby neglecting a city’s or locality’s potential to have a greater impact on incremental policy change, specifically in the use of conservation easements.

A conservation easement, as defined by the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, is an agreement whereby a landowner of a large property cedes “...certain rights of ownership to preserve their land or buildings for future generations.”  Usually these rights involve the future development and current usage of the property donated, and the landowners are compensated with tax credits and sometimes an additional lump sum of cash. This sale of rights is typically facilitated through land trust organizations, which are nonprofit groups that manage and enforce the easement.  In Virginia, some of these organizations are the Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC), the Blue Ridge Land Conservancy, and the Virginia Eastern Shore Land Trust.  Additionally, development rights can be sold by the landowners to local governments through purchase of development rights programs.

The power of conservation easements is evident in this article’s photo, a personal photo from the PEC’s Piedmont Memorial Overlook.  The extensive use of conservation easements, which permanently protected the farmland and hills seen above, made the multiple-mile viewshed possible.  The outlook, which is accessible to all through the Appalachian Trail, exemplifies the natural beauty that one can only experience for free through the use of conservation easements.  While providing the multitude of benefits mentioned above, they allow for the opportunity for commuters, casual drivers, hikers, nature lovers, and the average American to enjoy the landscapes that inspired previous generations.  As a resident of Fauquier County, I am lucky enough to be surrounded by protected landscapes that serve as an escape from the monotonous gray asphalt of urban life.

The Commonwealth of Virginia receives a multitude of benefits from the local use of conservation easements, in addition to the protection of magnificent vistas, bustling waterways, and the green hills of the country. For example, the state and its localities have seen significant positive economic effects.  Some areas, such as those around the Chesapeake Bay, experience increased rates of eco-tourism. This is due to the conserved lands that protect natural purification systems, fishing sites, and viewsheds.  Other areas experience lower service demands.  Based on tax and cost estimates in one Virginia county, for every tax dollar that agricultural land generates, it only costs the county 22 cents to provide services to it.  While commercial development also results in revenue increases, every tax dollar from residential development costs $1.17 in services, thus creating a revenue deficit for the county.

Conservation easements also aid in the promotion of smarter growth and planning, as a large portion of them protect the farms and open spaces in the countryside, thus preventing urban sprawl from further encroaching on rural areas.  Easements stimulate a targeted growth in more developed areas, called service districts, that have the existing infrastructure to support new development.  The goal of service districts is to create places of denser growth, thereby containing sprawl, guaranteeing more efficient services, and hopefully, providing a more connected way of life.

To some, however, conservation easements are seen as another government program that benefits special interests, and does not actually aid society. After an easement is created, the landowner receives tax exemptions, and other forms of monetary compensation.  In Virginia, landowners who put their land into easements are eligible for federal and state income tax deductions and/or credits, estate tax reductions, and reduced real estate taxes.  Some feel that government sponsorship of easements is not only a waste of taxpayer money, but that it also subsidizes large landowners.  Additionally, there has been an increase in the occurrence of tax fraud involving conservation easements.  Because of the instances of abuse and perceived waste of tax dollars, many citizens believe conservation easement funding should be cut or eliminated in order to fund other programs or reduce taxes.

A second alleged issue is that these easements are a form of governmental encroachment that threaten the property rights of the owner.  For example, there is currently a lawsuit between a farmer in Paris, Virginia, and the easement holders, over violations of multiple conservation easements.  The landowner claims that the land trust and other parties of the easements violated her privacy by carrying out inspections on her property.  The easement holders, however, claim that the current landowner violated terms of the conservation easements placed on the property,  which were set in an agreement with the previous property owner.  Specifically, it is alleged that the current landowner carried out certain types of commercial activity that were not seen as viable uses for the property.  The Piedmont Environmental Council, which is one of the main easement holders, states that they were enforcing the terms of the easements, and that their strict nature was due to the property’s historical significance and its visibility from multiple nature trails.  While legal battles are still occurring over this issue, the Piedmont Environmental Council was determined to not have overstepped its bounds by a local court.

These arguments over-exaggerate the concerns with conservation easements.  In response to the notion that conservation easements are a waste of tax dollars, although they decrease the tax burden of the landowner, they also prevent further development in undeveloped areas.  As stated earlier, residential development requires more money for services than the amount that they bring in from taxation. By preventing expansion into rural areas, localities don’t have to increase spending to provide services to the more isolated and spread-out areas.  Additionally, conservation easements aid in stimulating eco-tourism, and protect natural systems that clean and purify our environment. With regard to the argument of property rights infringement, these agreements are voluntary, and still allow various forms of agricultural uses.  Land trusts and local governments aim to work with landowners.  Instead of creating overbearing regulations in order to pursue land use and environmental goals, they are utilizing a voluntary method that provides monetary compensation.

Sadly, due to the belief in these two concerns and budgetary constraints, levels of government throughout the country try to defund their respective conservation easement programs.  For example, the Virginia General Assembly plans to cut funding, since the state will receive mitigation payments from the construction of pipelines.  These payments are meant to counteract the negative impacts from the specific projects, and not to replace general conservation funding. Through ploys such as these, governments can successfully thwart conservation efforts, effectively freezing the expansion of area conserved in perpetuity.  This threatens not only our viewsheds that help us escape from the urban concrete, but the environmental quality of our nation.

While there are issues regarding the fine-tuning of enforcement, tax assessment, and what is or is not allowed on land under easement, conservation easements are still one of the best ways localities can play a role in environmental policy and land development.  Through conserving land, large landowners and farmers have the ability to participate in environmental policy and help preserve the countryside for future generations.