Conservation Easements –

Conservation Easements (CEs) are title encumbrances that impose enforceable development, management and land use restrictions on real property. CEs qualifying for a tax exemption under IRS 170(h) Rules require monitoring by land trusts, third party non-profit organizations holding legal entitlements to access, monitoring, enforcement and a host of other controls over the landowner’s property.

The philosophy undergirding CEs is relatively new, having been codified at the national level by Uniform Conservation Easement Act (UCEA). UCEA was quickly adopted into the statutes of most states, and it — along with the federal IRS tax exemption — have effectively injected the federal government into county land use policy through reduction of property valuations and imposition of natural resource and land management restrictions.

The original concept behind conservation easements came from the desire to protect unique, rare and historic lands, such as the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone or Yosemite National Park from development. However, the outworking of CE policy at the local level, in particular in-perpetuity requirements, resource sequestration, large-scale imposition of buffer zones on private property, and valuation reductions has provided fertile ground for mischief, abuse and litigation.

Significant gaps exist in CE policy, in particular regulation, monitoring, and mandatory standards necessary to oversee unscrupulous land trusts and agents. No uniform regulatory system exists that inhibits land trusts from negotiating CEs, collecting fees and tax benefits, and then from abandoning their in-perpetuity monitoring responsibilities. Indeed, records from a KNRC public hearing, testimonies, studies, and state-wide tax issues all indicate prolific problems with CEs and CE policy.

Proponents of CEs point to their right to make permanent decisions for properties they own; opponents (and historical provisions in common law) counter that the ownership rights, preferences, and prerogatives cease upon death — or a reasonable period thereafter — of the land owner.

KNRC is active in following and participating in CE public policy. This includes monitoring of the effects of land devaluation, understanding of long-term tax implications to county governments, protection of adjacent landholders from buffer zones, and promotion of CE transfer and threatened/endangered species notification requirements. Maps and a database of CE lands can be viewed here.

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