Conservation 101: Frequently Asked Questions
How does the Eagle Valley Land Trust protect land?
The Eagle Valley Land Trust is a private, not-for-profit 501(c)(3) organization that was established in 1982 to preserve the important wildlife habitat, magnificent scenic vistas, and historic ranching heritage that are integral to the character and quality of live in Eagle County. By working with the owners of this area’s special open lands, the Land Trust has ensured the permanent protection of more than 14,000 acres in and around the Eagle River Valley. The land that the organization has protected in perpetuity includes:
- The historic Taylor City on Tennessee Pass
- 10 miles of river corridor
- 3 miles of Colorado River frontage
- 1,800 acres of land that is now part of Sylvan Lake State Park
- Historic ranchlands that include homesteaders’ cabins and a pioneer schoolhouse
- The famous East Vail Waterfall
What is a conservation easement?
A conservation easement is a voluntary legal agreement between a landowner and a charitable organization or government entity that permanently preserves scenic or agricultural open space, natural habitat, or recreational areas (conservation values) for the benefit of the public. The owner places permanent restrictions on the future uses of some or all of his or her property to protect the conservation values. These agreements are individually tailored to protect the conservation values of the property while allowing the property to stay under private ownership and control. Conservation easements may preserve traditional land uses such as family farming and ranching. The restrictions usually limit the number of future homesites but can, and often do, limit other uses as well.
Conservation easements are specifically tailored to meet the conservation and financial/tax planning interests of each landowner. The final conservation easement for a specific property is the result of drafting and redrafting the document numerous times until all parties are satisfied. When an easement has been signed and recorded, the land trust must see that it is honored in perpetuity. The trust will visit the property annually thereafter and will defend the easement’s intent if necessary.
What happens to the easement if I sell the land or die?
A conserved land may be sold or passed down to one’s heirs. The easement agreement remains a permanent part of the title and will run with the land even after its transfer. The landowner may continue to use and enjoy the land in ways consistent with the easement, which may include ranching, recreation or other uses. In some circumstances, easements may allow for additional homesites on a small portion of the property, or may provide for small “disturbance envelopes’ within which the uses are not restricted by the easement.
If I donate an easement, what are the tax benefits?
A gift of a conservation easement frequently benefits a landowner by permanently protecting the important conservation qualities of the property without the landowner having to give up ownership, and by creating immediate tax advantages.
Easements that are (1) permanent, (2) donated by the landowner (or subject to a qualified bargain sale), and (3) provide one or more conservation values for public benefit typically qualify for tax benefits offered by the Internal Revenue Code and the Colorado Department of Revenue. The two main tax benefits associated with a donated conservation easement are income tax benefits and estate tax benefits. An independent appraisal, conducted by a qualified appraiser, of the value of the easement determines the extent of the tax benefits.
To qualify for a deduction, the agreement must be properly structured and must provide significant benefit to the public by satisfying one or more recognized ‘conservation purpose’ as defined by Internal Revenue Code Section 170H. These are:
- the preservation of land areas for outdoor recreation by, or the education of, the general public
- the protection of a relatively natural habitat of fish, wildlife, or plants, or similar ecosystem
- the preservation of open space (including farmland and forest land) where such preservation is for the scenic enjoyment of the general public or pursuant to clearly delineated Federal, State or local government conservation policy and will yield a significant public benefit
- the preservation of an historically important land area or a certified historic structure
What type of property is appropriate for protection with an Eagle Valley Land Trust conservation easement?
Each property is evaluated individually after careful investigation of its resources and qualities. Depending on the property, sometimes one factor alone is significant enough to merit protection, other times several factors combine to make the property important to preserve. Generally, a property is a good candidate for protection with a conservation easement if the land:
- includes important wildlife habitat or known wildlife migration routes.
- buffers wildlife habitat, so that its protection from dense development would diminish impacts on wildlife from dogs, cars and concentration of human activities.
- is in active ranching or other agricultural use.
- is visible from major highways, from rivers used by the public for recreation or from public-use areas.
- is in a relatively natural, undisturbed condition.
- shares a boundary with, or is in close proximity to Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management properties
- is adjacent to, or in close proximity to, private land that is already permanently protected or that is likely to be protected in the foreseeable future.
- is situated such that its development would obstruct or diminish scenic views or would interfere with view across already protected open.
- borders or affects the integrity of a significant river, stream or creek in the area.
- is of sufficient size that its conservation resources are likely to remain intact, even if adjacent properties are developed.
How does the Eagle Valley Land Trust steward its conservation easements?
The Eagle Valley Land Trust monitors each conservation property at least annually to ensure that the terms of the conservation easement are being met. If a violation of an easement is discovered, it is the Land Trust’s legal and moral obligation to ensure that the violation is rectified. The Land Trust has had very few easement violations to date. Still, the Land Trust is prepared to defend all of its easements should a major violation or legal challenge occur. Towards this end, the Land Trust is building a quasi-endowment fund of sufficient size to ensure that it is financially capable of stewarding its easements and conservation lands in perpetuity. The Land Trust operates its easement stewardship program in accordance with the Land Trust Alliance’s Standards and Practices.
If I put a conservation easement on my property, must I allow public access?
No. You are not required to allow public access, even if public funds are used to purchase the conservation easement. Most of the property protected with Eagle Valley Land Trust conservation easements remains in private ownership with public access restricted by the landowner. However, the Land Trust does currently hold easements on several properties on which public access is not only allowed, but encouraged.
Are there circumstances where the Land Trust would not accept a donated easement?
Yes. The Eagle Valley Land Trust may decline to accept a conservation easement for any reason. Reasons include, but are not limited to: the Trust deems that the reserved rights or proposed development on the land will interfere with the preservation of the conservation values; it believes that the easement does not provide significant public benefit; if there are not documentable conservation values to meet IRS requirements, or if conservation is required for approval of a development. The Eagle Valley Land Trust reserves the right to accept or deny a conservation easement in its sole discretion. Please contact us for more information.
How do I determine the value of a donated easement?
Only a qualified real estate appraiser can determine the value of an easement donation for tax purposes. The appraiser will consider the property’s ‘highest and best use’ — under current zoning — and its value with an easement on it. The difference between these two figures is the value of the donation.
What is the difference between the Eagle Valley Land Trust and the Eagle County Open Space Committee?
Although the ultimate goal of both organizations is to protect the natural and scenic resources of the Eagle Valley, the method of doing so varies between organizations. The Eagle Valley Land Trust is a non-political organization that uses the conservation easement as its primary tool to help conserve privately owned lands in perpetuity. The Eagle County Open Space Advisory Committee was formed as part of the voter-approved Referendum 1H to provide recommendations to the Eagle County Board of Commissioners on the use of tax-generated open space funds.