Do your homework on land trusts (or public agencies).
Learn as much as you can about land trusts (and public agencies) and particularly about the land trust that seems the best fit for you and your property. Read the land trust’s annual report, find out where the land trust gets its funding, attend land trust events and functions, talk with landowners who’ve worked with the land trust. Gather as much information as possible, and get answers to all questions you might have.
Do your homework on conservation easements.
Learn as much as you can, from as many sources as you can, about what conservation easements are and how they work. Talk to agricultural organizations, talk to farmers and ranchers who have—or refuse to have—conservation easements on their properties. Gather as much information as possible, and get answers to all your questions.
Do your homework on conservation easement programs and funding options.
There are more conservation easement programs and options for Montana landowners than ever before. There are federal (Farm Bill and others), state (sage grouse, Habitat Montana, and others), and local (county open land programs and others). They all have specific and varied funding priorities, program rules and public processes to follow.
Not all conservation programs are the same.
It is worth repeating: Conservation easement programs vary greatly. Some involve a substantial public process, some do not. Some take longer than others. Some have strict funding priorities, some are more general. Take the time to learn program provisions.
Talk to financial, legal, and land management people you value and trust.
Talk to your banker. Your accountant. Your attorney. Your financial advisor. Talk to people you respect and whose advice is important to you. A conservation easement is a financial and business transaction with a conservation commitment at its core.
Have a pretty good idea why you’re interested in a conservation easement and what you want the easement to achieve.
Basically, know what you want to get out of the deal. You and a land trust (or public agency) are going to negotiate final terms within the conservation easement document, and the more certainty you have about what you want and don’t want in that document the better. Identify deal-breakers as soon as possible. Articulate clear goals as soon as possible.
Have an answer for when the land trust staff asks, “What’s your vision for your property now and in the future?”
Generally, the more clear and detailed your answer is to that question, the better the land trust (or public agency) will understand your goals and purposes for the conservation easement. Do you want a future building site(s) for children? Do you absolutely want to conserve the wetland? Are you comfortable with a provision that prevents conversion of grasslands to cropland?
Photo Courtesy of Five Valleys Land Trust
Be prepared to pay project costs.
Sometimes there can be financial assistance with project costs (appraisal, title search, minerals test, property survey, etc.) but most of the time landowners bear those costs.
You control the timeline.
Take your time. Proceed at a pace you are comfortable with. Proceed if and when you are confident you have the information you need to make an informed decision. Proceed if and when you’ve had the conversations with the people you want to converse with to make an informed decision. The landowner is in charge of the timeframe and pace within that timeframe.
Just for fun, read the Montana Open-Space and Voluntary Conservation Easement Act (the state law that enables creation of conservation easements).
This statute was passed in 1975, and provides a minimal role for state government in the creation of a conservation easement. The statute is landowner-friendly, and has clearly stood the test of time. It has not been meaningfully changed since its passage, and landowners have consistently and strongly opposed proposed changes.
Local planning authorities have an opportunity to review and comment on proposed conservation easements.
One limited local government role within the statute is the ability of the local planning authority to review the proposed conservation easement. The local planning authority does not have the ability to approve or deny the conservation easement, only to review and offer comments.
The market is mixed on sales of properties encumbered with a conservation easement.
Conservation easements do limit development, and properties with limited development potential typically limits buyers for that property. Land valuations and land sales data vary tremendously over time (sometimes short periods of time), can vary regionally, and can vary by farm or ranch type. Resale of conservation easement properties depend on many factors, and all those factors taken together impact the number of potential buyers and potential market value of the property. Again, a conservation easement that limits development can limit buyers, and a limit on buyers can reduce marketability of the property. But any and all real estate transactions depend on many market forces.
Fully understand the conservation easement document.
Don’t sign the conservation easement until you fully understand it. When you do sign the conservation easement document you want to be absolutely confident you know the meaning and management implications of every word, every sentence, and every provision.
Don’t sign the conservation easement with the thought you’ll change it later.
Conservation easement amendments are not easy, not quick and typically not simple. The holder of the conservation easement (land trust or public agency) will follow state law, its own internal policies, and national land trust standards and practices during a thorough amendment process, and that process should lead to a decision that provides more conservation (not less) as a result of the amendment.
The land trust (or public agency) will monitor, steward and enforce the terms of the conservation easement.
National standards and practices require the land trust (or public agency) to monitor the easement on an annual basis. That usually means a friendly call from the land trust to schedule a friendly in-person monitoring visit to visually ensure the terms of the conservation easement are being followed. Part of the stewardship commitment from land trusts—and for the landowner—is the assurance the easement will be monitored and enforced.