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Land conservation basics, benefits

The basics

People who own land have land use rights collectively known as a bundle of rights. These rights typically include residency, farming, timber harvesting, mining, recreation, landscaping and numerous other activities. Landowners also have the right to subdivide and sell land, which sometimes leads to development. Those who wish to protect land for future generations, however, instead conserve land by giving or selling the land or a conservation easement to a conservation entity. Such entities can be a land trust, state agency, local government or other conservation group. People also conserve land by giving up certain property rights, often in exchange for tax relief. Following are some of the more common ways people conserve their land.

Fee simple donations, gifts and bargain sales

The most straightforward path people take to conserve land is to donate all ownership rights by giving or selling the fee simple title or deed to a conservation organization. They donate all or part of their land as a gift now or later, in a will. Others opt to sell 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, thus reducing their tax load. Bargain sales can also lessen liability of long-term large capital gains taxes associated with the sale of a large estate.

Conservation and open space easements

Easements are more common. With easements, landowners give or sell to conservation groups some property rights to their land. The owner relinquishes most development rights but retains ownership and traditional usage of the land. This is typically done by placing a conservation or open space easement on the deed to the property.

Some people also donate or sell their property to a land conservation organization but continue to live on it until death. This is called a life estate. The land is protected, and the owner enjoys the property during his or her lifetime.

Natural Area Dedications

Natural Area Dedications are an option available to landowners of highly significant natural areas. Dedication places natural areas, both privately and publicly owned, into Virginia's Natural Area Preserve System. Landowners retain ownership and transfer rights while voluntarily restricting land uses that are incompatible with protection of the natural area. Those with qualified land enter into a legal agreement called an instrument of dedication, which is recorded with the deed of the property. This ensures permanent protection of the natural area from conversion to inappropriate uses.

The benefits

In 1970, Virginia’s population was about 4.6 million. It had grown by more than 75 percent to more than 8.3 million by the year 2014. While such growth is certainly impressive – even enviable – more people require more land and, as the saying goes, "They’re not making any more of it."

This growth necessitates careful and intelligent planning. There are lands in Virginia that have witnessed some of America’s greatest human triumphs and tragedies. Our open spaces, farms, award-winning parks, battlefields and other historic places attract visitors from around the world. Similarly, Virginia’s beautiful natural habitats – some types of which are found nowhere else – provide sanctuary for many exceptional plants and animals. Such astonishing natural and cultural resources come as well with an extraordinary responsibility. Land conservation is a big part of that responsibility.

In particular

The public benefits from such protection because it assures the availability of land for agriculture, forests, recreation and open space. It protects our natural resources and maintains and enhances air and water quality. Land conservation also preserves our historical, architectural and archaeological heritage.

And conserving land doesn't mean it can't be touched. For example, land in conservation or open space easements can typically still be used normally, such as for timber harvesting, farming, residency, etc. The easement simply protects the property’s unique characteristics – prime soils, wetlands, endangered species habitat, and so forth.

So whether you rent a small townhouse or own 100,000 acres, there are ways to get involved. Click here to learn how, or contact DCR’s Office of Land Conservation at (804) 225-2048, email landcon@dcr.virginia.gov to get started.