Options for landowners
PROTECTING AND CONSERVING YOUR LAND
Whatcom Land Trust works with willing landowners who want to conserve their property’s special conservation features and preserve Whatcom County’s diverse natural heritage including wildlife habitat, wetlands and streams, shorelines, parks, and working farms and forests. Find out more about how you can Save your Land and your options.
The landscape of Whatcom County is wondrous, abundant and varied. Our natural heritage is steeped in rugged peaks, alpine meadows, dark forests, cold streams, open vistas, rich productive soils, and dynamic shorelines. The mission of the Whatcom Land Trust is to protect these special places for future generations. We achieve our mission by preserving in perpetuity critical wildlife habitats, open spaces for scenic vistas and public recreation sites, productive working lands, and areas of natural beauty. Protection of these special places is accomplished through innovative conservation transactions and partnerships with individuals, corporations, government agencies, tribes and other non-governmental conservation organizations by the acquisition and stewardship of conservation easements or fee simple ownership.
For more information about protecting your property. Please contact Conservation Manager Alex Jeffers at: firstname.lastname@example.org or Jenn Mackey, Stewardship Director at: email@example.com
Whatcom Land Trust uses two main methods to secure interest in land:
Conservation Easements and Fee Simple Ownership
- What is Fee Simple Ownership?
- What is a Conservation Easement?
- Conservation Easement FAQ’s
- What is an AG PDR Conservation Easement?
- Project Selection
- Project Evaluation
- Tax Benefits
What is Fee Simple Ownership
Whatcom Land Trust sometimes conserves land by owning it outright and becoming the perpetual steward of the land. Landowners may donate the property, or in special cases, sell the title and all rights and interests to the land trust for fair market value. The land trust retains the land for conservation purposes and is responsible for managing it into the future. The land trust also sometimes grants conservation easements or other deed restrictions on land it owns to an appropriate public agency—for example, to the state or county for park purposes. In other cases, the land trust might convey the fee title to a public agency and reserve a conservation easement to ensure the agency respects the reasons the land was protected. Generally, the land trust acquires fee title ownership of properties with significant wildlife habitat and creates nature preserves, while conservation easements are used to protect working landscapes, owner occupied lands, or recreation lands.
Before the land trust acquires a property, the project must meet the trust’s evaluation criteria and be approved by its board of directors. The primary ways that the land trust acquires land are described below (land trust conservation staff can also discuss with you other options for conveying land or development rights to the land trust):
When landowners donate property to the land trust, they are giving the land trust the property’s title and all of its rights and interest. Land donations can qualify as tax-deductible charitable donations if they benefit the public by permanently protecting important conservation resources and meet other federal tax code requirements.
The land trust sometimes purchases land with extraordinary conservation resources. The land trust may decide to seek grant funding and private donations to buy such a property when a landowner is not in a position to donate it. The land trust also can work quickly to raise private donations and find creative financing solutions when critical conservation properties fall under immediate threat from development.
In a bargain sale, the landowner sells land to a land trust for less than its fair market value. This not only makes it more affordable for the land trust, but may offer several benefits to landowners: it provides cash, may avoid some capital gains tax, and may entitle the landowner to a charitable income tax deduction base on the difference between the land’s fair market value and its sale price.
Landowners who want to give their land to the land trust for permanent protection but wish to continue living on the property may consider a life estate. With a life estate, landowners retain their right to live on the property while donating the property’s remainder interest to the land trust. With such a donation, landowners must uphold the property’s conservation values and continue to be responsible for its maintenance, taxes, and insurance. Upon their death or a specified date, the land trust assumes complete ownership. Landowners can qualify for a tax deduction based on the value of the remainder interest that is donated to the land trust. The value of remainder interest is determined by IRS actuarial tables.
The land trust welcomes the donation of property that is not suited for conservation. The land trust can sell this type of property, known as “trade lands,” and use the proceeds to continue its mission of protecting important island land and water. In some cases, when a donated or purchased property has values for conservation, but the land trust is not the appropriate long term owner, the land trust may resell the property and reserve a conservation easement.
What is a Conservation Easement?
A conservation easement is a recorded, legal agreement between landowners and a land trust that places restrictions on the use of the land to protect its conservation values. The land trust is responsible for enforcing those restrictions in perpetuity. Conservation easements range from restrictions limiting residential or commercial use of the land to those that state the land will remain forever wild. The title stays in the landowner’s name and the land may be used as before, leased, sold, or passed along to the landowner’s heirs; always subject to the restrictions of the easement.
Most conservation easements are voluntary donations and benefit the public by protecting important conservation values on special land.
Each conservation easement is specifically tailored to address the needs and desires of the landowner, and to protect the identified conservation values of the land.
The easement is recorded with the title to the property, ensuring protection forever since all future owners will be subject to the easement’s restrictions.
The land trust does not own the land under a conservation easement; however, the long-term role of the Trust is to assume the responsibility and legal right to enforce the terms of the agreement forever. The land trust usually asks for a tax-deductible contribution from the easement donor to its stewardship fund to offset the cost of future expenses.
The property remains in private ownership, and, within the conditions of the easement, can be otherwise used as before, leased, sold, or passed on to heirs.
An easement in no way grants public access to property unless so desired by the owner or the primary purpose of the conservation easement is for recreation.
Whatcom Land Trust does not usually purchase conservation easements; however, the land trust works with willing landowners with lands that have outstanding conservation values and wish to conserve their land by donating conservation easements.
Other Easement Opportunities:
Unique funding opportunities that allow farmers to get on the land.
Conservation Easement FAQ’s
What is a conservation easement?
A Conservation Easement is a voluntary agreement between a property owner and a land trust in which the land owner donates to the land trust specific property rights in exchange for the land trust’s commitment to protect the conservation values of the property forever. The land owner retains ownership of the land with the ability to sell it or pass it on to heirs, and may receive an income tax benefit from the easement donation.
Does “conserving” land mean giving up individual rights and/or land ownership?
The Whatcom Land Trust accepts gifts of conservation easements from land owners. Property owners retain the ownership of their property, but may give development rights, timber rights or other types of conservation interests to the Whatcom Land Trust in order to protect a specific or combination of conservation values. A conservation easement allows you to continue to own your land, use your land, pass your land down to heirs, or sell it. The easement simply assures that the natural qualities and resources bestowed by your land will be protected forever.
How does a conservation easement work?
Each Conservation Easement is unique to the site and the owner’s personal wishes. A single feature can be preserved, development can be limited or the entire landscape may be conserved. For an example, you might want to give up the right to build additional residences while retaining the right to grow crops; other landowners may wish to limit development, protect key wildlife habitat features, but retain the right to continually selectively harvest timber protecting a sustainable working forest. Future owners will be bound by the terms of the easement and the Land Trust is responsible for ensuring that the terms of the easement are honored.
What kind of property qualifies for a conservation easement?
Any property with conservation value can be protected by a conservation easement. This includes wetlands, forests, farms, wildlife habitat, beaches, scenic areas, recreational land, historic areas and property with educational, scientific, or cultural value.
Does a conservation easement allow public access?
Landowners who grant easements are not required to open their property to the public. Some landowners choose to give the public limited access rights, such as fishing or hiking – others choose not to allow public access.
How long does a conservation easement last?
A conservation easement lasts in perpetuity, in other words, forever. Title to the land may change, but the easement remains in effect.
Can a conservation easement be modified?
Conservation easements can only be amended to strengthen the conservation values of the easement. For example, a landowner may have donated a conservation easement that retained the right to build an additional house, but now choose to eliminate that right.
Are there any tax benefits to a conservation easement?
When a landowner donates an easement, the IRS considers the donation a charitable gift, and this may reduce ones federal taxes. Additionally, property taxes may be reduced depending on how the value of the land is altered by the donation.
What is Conservation Easement Stewardship Fund contribution?
Whatcom Land Trust maintains a dedicated stewardship fund to meet the long-term obligation of conservation easement stewardship. The land trust requests a contribution to the Stewardship Fund from each easement donor. The amount requested is determined by an assessment of the individual easement.
What is Mortgage Subordination?
When a mortgage holder subordinates a mortgage to a conservation easement, they agree to allow the conservation easement to be first in the chain of title, so that in the event of a foreclosure, the integrity of the conservation easement remains intact. Accepting a conservation easement on a property subject to a pre-existing mortgage is a problem because if the lender ever forecloses on the mortgage and takes title to the property, the easement may be extinguished. The only solution is to have the lender subordinate its rights to the property to the rights of the easement holder. WLT will not accept an easement on a mortgaged property unless the holder of the mortgage agrees to subordinate.
What is an Ag PDR Conservation Easement?
The loss of farmland throughout the country has become an increasing concern in recent years.
One of the multiple conservation tools used to protect agricultural lands is the conservation easement. While many farmers cannot afford to donate a conservation easement, the Purchase of Development Rights (PDR) program compensates the farmer for foregoing development potential and limits the uses of property in order to protect fertile soils so they remain available to grow food and fiber. The limitations established by these agricultural protection conservation easements apply to all future owners of the property, thus preserving farms and ranches forever.
Farmland preservation provides for a host of benefits including economic, environmental, food security and cultural.
Some of the benefits of the voluntary Agricultural PDR Program:
- The farms remain in production and in private ownership.
- The farmer receives compensation for giving up development potential.
- The farmers may sell, lease or pass-on the farm.
Whatcom Land Trust has been in partnership with Whatcom County since 2002 to conserve farmland. Whatcom Land Trust co-holds AG PDR easements with the county and is responsible for the stewardship of the conservation easements. Whatcom County administers the PDR Program and is the point of contact for the application, appraisal, etc.
Working with willing Whatcom County landowners, the PDR program provides a mechanism to increase the protection of the county’s farmland and enhance the long-term viability of the agricultural enterprises within the county, which benefits the public by retaining properties in permanent working farm use.
Whatcom County has many special places worthy of protection, far more than we can work on at any one time, so we must prioritize our work. Our Land Conservation Plan focuses on protecting critical wildlife habitat, working farms and forests and recreation lands; and connecting people to the land through stewardship and recreation.
Our four conservation program areas are:
Critical Wildlife Habitat
Whatcom Land Trust is a committed partner to the challenge of salmon recovery, to protect and where necessary restore properly functioning conditions – the physical and biological characteristics of an ecosystem that fish must have in order to spawn, rear and migrate. Whatcom Land Trust focuses on Priority Habitats and Species, including wetlands, old growth forests, clean water.
Shorelines – Where land meets water
- Public access to water
- Protecting and restoring shore form processes including, feeder bluffs, estuaries and deltas
Working Resource lands
- Working farms
- Working forests
Promotion of Stewardship & Recreation
- Tours, Research and Education
- Non-motorized recreation lands & trails
- Conservation Easement Stewardship
- Land Trust Preserve Stewardship
- Partnerships for restoration
Underlying these programs are the same conservation values that have guided the Land Trust’s work since 1984:
- Safeguarding natural habitats and integrity of local ecosystems
- Providing public access to natural areas where appropriate as a means of encouraging the
value of stewardship
- Conserving productive farm and forestland
- Preserving open space, natural beauty, and special heritage sites
- Promoting good stewardship through sound management of Trust properties and maintaining an ongoing dialogue with the community through newsletters and other publications
While these programs provide a conceptual framework to guide the work of the Land Trust into the future they are not discrete compartments; a project such as a riparian corridor conservation easement may serve multiple programs, or an outreach event like a tour may lead to a significant property donation. We use our Land Conservation Plan and other regional plans like the County Comprehensive Plans, local government plans and the watershed restoration plan to further assist us in selecting projects.
If you are interested in conserving your land, Please call our office at 360 650-9470 Conservation staff from the Whatcom Land Trust will call you back to discuss your property.
When a landowner contacts us, or we contact a landowner, we discuss the benefits of conservation as well as the landowner’s goals, concerns and questions, how the property characteristics fit with Whatcom Land Trust’s conservation objectives, and whether protection will involve fee-simple acquisition or a conservation easement. Whatcom Land Trust respects the privacy of those who work with us, so we always keep these conversations confidential.
If the Land Trust and a landowner agree to pursue a project, the Land Trust will conduct an evaluation of the property’s conservation values. This will involve a formal site evaluation visit to the property by our staff and Lands Committee. The committee will consider the conservation values of the land, how it fits with the Land Trust’s mission and priorities, the method of acquisition (e.g., donation or purchase), the initial cost, and the long-term management costs. The committee will then make a recommendation to the board of directors. If it is not a donation, the trust will simultaneously pursue funding, either through private donations or government grants.
Depending on the complexity of the deal, the transaction may take anywhere from a few months to several years. Whatcom Land Trust only works with willing landowners who want to conserve their properties and does not have condemnation or eminent domain authority.
For up-to-date tax information and benefits, please see your CPA.
Are there tax benefits associated with land protection? There may be income and property tax benefits for donating land, donating a conservation easement, or selling the property as a “bargain sale” at below market value. The amount and type of tax benefits depends on a variety of factors, including the legal tool you’ve used to protect your land, the value of the donation, your income level and the total amount of your estate. We recommend that you consult with a financial advisor and/or an attorney to fully understand the tax implications. The Land Trust Alliance has a variety of books and pamphlets that provide basic information on this subject.
Whatcom Land Trust is a qualified 501 c (3) non-profit conservation organization, therefore a donation of a conservation easement or land may be eligible for potential tax benefits. Please know that the IRS has specific regulations regarding the timing and qualifications appraisals for donation of land if a tax deduction is to be claimed. It is the responsibility of the landowner to obtain a qualified appraisal prepared by a qualified appraiser to substantiate the charitable gift. If valued over $5,000, Whatcom Land Trust requests a copy of the appraisal and will only sign the Form 8283 after the form is completely filled out by the donor/tax preparer and the appraiser. You will want to confer with your tax advisors before filing your tax return to ensure that all provisions of the regulations have been met.
The regulations have two basic requirements:
First, the landowner must obtain a qualified appraisal prepared by a “qualified appraiser,” which contains certain information that is listed below. The appraisal cannot be prepared more than 60 days prior to the date of contribution. The term “qualified appraiser” is spelled out in the regulations; in general, the appraiser cannot have any personal stake in the property or the gift, be related to the donor, or have any business relationship with the donor or donee that would cause a reasonable person to question the appraiser’s independence. The appraiser’s fee cannot be based upon a percentage of appraised value.
The second requirement of the regulations is the taxpayer file an appraisal summary with his or her tax return. Form 8283 is the form to be used for the appraisal summary. The summary must be signed by the appraiser and donor, and receipt of the charitable contribution must be acknowledged by the donee organization. The appraisal summary must also contain certain information specified on the next page.
If the donee organization sells or otherwise disposes of the donated property within two years, it must file Form 8282 with the IRS, and send a copy to the taxpayer. This will allow the IRS to cross-check the sales price with the value claimed on the donor’s tax return.