IN THE LAST 30 YEARS, THE BAY AREA HAS LOST 217,000 ACRES of agricultural land to sprawl development—a total area equivalent to seven San Franciscos. Contra Costa County agriculture contributes $225 million to the local economy. Yet the county has had nearly 20% of its agricultural land paved over since 1990, and much of what’s left is still threatened by imminent development pressure.
Close to urban areas, Bay Area farmers and ranchers are under more pressure than their counterparts in more rural areas of the state. The cost of land and other inputs is higher and the potential for conflict with urban uses is greater. To stay in business, agriculture in this region must overcome these competitive disadvantages.
WHAT IS A CONSERVATION EASEMENT?
A conservation easement is a voluntary legal agreement by which a landowner chooses to limit certain uses of his or her land in order to conserve some value it provides. Land placed into a conservation easement still belongs to the landowner, and the landowner retains the rights to sell the land or pass it to heirs.
Most landowners with conservation easements continue to live on and manage the land for farming, ranching, timber, recreation, and other uses. These agreements are tailored to meet the needs and long-term goals of each landowner. ANRT ensures that the mutually agreed-upon terms and conditions of the conservation easement are honored, and acts as a resource for landowners as they work toward these goals.
The Trust is devoted to providing financial options to landowners in order to protect the agricultural heritage of Contra Costa and surrounding Counties. The Trust can protect land permanently and directly by accepting donations of conservation easements designed to meet the individual needs of landowners.
WHAT'S IN IT FOR THE COMMUNITY?
Water that passes through a natural hydrologic system is more likely to remain clean and abundant. Conservation easements can prevent certain kinds of development in critical areas, thereby strengthening these important natural systems.
Conservation easements can be critical for preserving migratory routes and habitat of native plants and animals, especially on lands that might otherwise be eventually developed. Easements can be written to still allow productive use on private land.
WORKING FARMS AND RANCHES
Family farms and ranches are the hard-working backbone of California’s landscape. Well-managed family lands have put food on our tables, money in our local economy, and preserved critical open spaces for generations. Often, a conservation easement is the best way to ensure this tradition continues into the future.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are the financial benefits of a conservation easement?
There are numerous possible financial benefits of a conservation easement and we encourage you to contact us for further details. Briefly, conservation easements may be purchased, donated, or bequeathed as part of a landowner’s will. The value of a conservation easement is determined by a qualified appraiser, and will vary considerably depending upon the terms of the agreement and local property values.
Many landowners decide to donate a portion or all of the value of a conservation easement and any value donated may be considered a charitable donation that qualifies for reductions in both income and estate taxes. At present, conservation easement donors may deduct up to 50% of their adjusted gross income and may carry that deduction forward up to 15 years. Qualifying farmers and ranchers may deduct up to 100% of their income, over the same time period.
Restricting a property’s development rights can substantially reduce inheritance taxes that otherwise may force a family to sell all or a portion of their ranch. Landowners may also be eligible for an additional inheritance tax exclusion of up to $500,000.
How are conservation easements valued?
Most conservation easements are valued according to what is called the “before and after test”. The appraiser establishes the value of the property both with the highest and best use and with a conservation easement, and the difference between the two is the value of the easement. The appraiser will rely on comparable sales of nearby properties, with and without conservation easements.
Can a conservation easement ever be amended or terminated?
One can amend the provisions of a conservation easement, as long as such amendments do not result in an increase in property value or other benefit to the landowner or other private party. Conservation easements can be terminated by judicial action whenever the purpose of the easement can no longer be fulfilled, and also by government through an act of condemnation as is the case with all real property.
What is meant by placing a conservation easement on a property “in perpetuity?”
“Perpetuity” simply means that a conservation easement cannot be amended or terminated unilaterally by the grantor, which is no different from any other deed or contract that runs with the land. Perpetuity is a requirement of federal tax law for an easement donation to be tax deductible.
Will a conservation easement result in the loss of my control over the management of my land?
Unlike management agreements, agricultural conservation easements put limitations only on commercial development and subdivision of the property in order to retain the land’s agricultural capacity and open character. Agricultural conservation easements support landowners’ day to day management decisions with regard to their ranching and farming activities as well as customary rural enterprise.
Does a conservation easement mean that the government will have more oversight over my land?
No. A conservation easement is an agreement between the farmer or rancher and ANRT or other qualified land trust. The Trust, in cooperation with the landowner, monitors compliance with the easement conditions and does not share that information with government agencies or the public. Occasionally, funds for easement purchases are made available by government programs that require reports from the land trust regarding easement compliance and may even have conditions where an easement would revert to a government agency should the land trust cease to exist as an entity or be unable to carry out its easement monitoring responsibilities. However, the landowner always has the option to decide whether or not to accept these funds with their conditions. ANRT will always discuss the pros and cons of any funding program with the landowner prior to accepting any money for an easement purchase.
ANRT's Conservation Efforts