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How do I protect my land?

As a landowner, you have certain rights regarding the use of your land. These property rights are collectively known as your bundle of rights, which typically includes the rights to live on your land and to use it for recreation, your home, farming, timber harvesting, mining and other activities. With your ownership also comes the right to subdivide property and sell the lots, or sell all of the property, which may lead to its development. However, if you wish to protect your land as it is today for future generations, you can give or sell your land or conservation easement to a state agency, local government, land trust, or conservation organization that is qualified to accept or acquire your land for conservation purposes. Here are several ways to protect your land.

Fee simple donations, gifts and bargain sales

You can donate all of the ownership rights by giving or selling the "fee simple title" or deed to your property to a conservation organization. You can simply donate all or part of your land as a gift now or later, in a will. If you donate land, you will be eligible for a tax credit for the value of your donation and potentially reduced real estate taxes. For more on tax advantages and incentives, see tax incentives related to land conservation.

You could also sell your property to a land conservation organization at a price below fair market value. This is called a "bargain sale." The difference between the sale price and the fair market value is considered a charitable donation, hence you could enjoy an income tax deduction or a reduction in estate taxes. In addition, a bargain sale is useful in minimizing the liability of a long-term capital gains tax associated with the sale of a large estate.

Conservation easements

You could also give or sell some property rights to your land to a conservation organization. This can be done in lieu of donating or selling all of the land, i.e., instead of turning over the fee simple ownership. This way you'd relinquish most development rights to the land while retaining ownership and traditional use of the land. This is typically done through placing a conservation easement on the deed to the property. (Conservation easements, when they are held by government entities, are sometimes called open space easements.)

A conservation or open space easement is a legal document made between a landowner and a public body or qualified conservation organization. The easement limits present and future property development rights. It allows you to live on the property and use it for its traditional use, e.g., as a farm, forest, open space, and/or natural area, but protects it as well. The easement is legally recorded and bound to the deed of the property permanently.

Each easement is tailored to the specific characteristics and uses of the given property. Timber harvesting, farming, primary residences and other uses may continue while the land's unique characteristics - prime soils, endangered species habitat, wetlands, etc. - are protected. The easement protects the property's natural or open space values, assuring the land's availability for agriculture, forestry, recreation, open-space use, thus protecting natural resources, maintaining or enhancing air or water quality, or preserving historical, architectural or archaeological aspects of the property.

Easements rarely allow public use of your property. The "holder" of the easement, i.e., the land conservation organization with whom the landowner entered into the easement, is responsible for enforcing the protective covenants of the easement and is therefore allowed to conduct periodic inspections of the property. The landowner retains all rights to the property except for restrictions on future development rights specified in the easement.

A landowner may also donate or sell their property to a land conservation organization but continue to live on it until his or her death. This is called a "life estate." This way land is protected while the owner continues to enjoy the property during his or her lifetime.

See the following to learn more about open-space and conservation easements:

For details on tax advantages, see tax incentives related to land conservation.

Natural Area Dedications

Natural Area Dedications are a conservation option available to landowners of highly significant natural areas. Dedication is the placement of natural areas, both privately and publicly owned, into Virginia's Natural Area Preserve System, administered by DCR. The landowner retains ownership and transfer rights of the land while voluntarily restricting land uses that are incompatible with the conservation needs of the natural area.

To be eligible, a property must include one or more of these natural values: habitat for rare, threatened for endangered plant or animal species; rare or state significant natural communities; and rare or state significant geologic sites. If your property qualifies for Natural Area Dedication, a legal document known as an "instrument of dedication" will be written and signed by you and DCR. The document will be recorded with the deed of the property thereby ensuring permanent protection of the natural area against conversion to inappropriate uses.

You may receive financial incentives for dedicating your land. Examples include possible reduced assessment for real estate purposes, reduction of federal estate and Virginia inheritance taxes, and a charitable deduction for state and federal income tax purposes. For details on tax advantages, see tax incentives related to land conservation.

Click here for more information on natural area dedications.