One way that land trusts stretch their limited resources to protect key tracts is by enlisting the help of private conservation buyers. This approach matches individuals or groups of individuals who value natural lands with significant places that require protection. The conservation buyer agrees to purchase and permanently protect threatened land, working in partnership with a conservation organization. In some instances, the buyer may purchase a property that a land trust recently acquired and placed under a conservation easement.
Conservation buyers can aid land trusts by moving quickly to acquire valuable parcels (like this Western Way shorefront on Great Cranberry Island) and provide for their long-term protection. photo: David MacDonald
When Orton P. (O.P.) Jackson learned that 64 acres of wild shoreline on Great Cranberry Island was about to go up for sale, he contacted Maine Coast Heritage Trust. Jackson wanted this spectacular frontage along Western Way preserved and was willing to help make that happen. Fortunately, the sellers wanted to see their land cared for by a conscientious land steward. After strategizing with Trust staff, Jackson made the sellers an attractive offer, quickly put the property under contract, and pledged to MCHT that he would donate an easement prohibiting future development and allowing continued public use.
David MacDonald, MCHT's Director of Land Protection, recalls it as "a model project where everything goes as planned. When valuable natural lands are unexpectedly threatened by sale," he continues, "it's essential to have parties who can move quickly. Generous and dedicated individuals like O.P. Jackson provide a tremendous service to land trusts by securing important properties for long-term conservation."
From Jackson's perspective, "MCHT made it easy. Even with a complicated negotiation, it only required my talking with staff and writing a couple of checks." His decision to become a conservation buyer grew from time spent outdoors, the inspiration of nature writers, and the legacy left by far-sighted conservationists in the past. "I'm so grateful to them," Jackson says, "and want to follow their example in a small way. Having a sensitivity to the land and capital in the bank made it a very simple choice for me." Jackson hopes that others will realize how gratifying it is to be a conservation buyer: "It's wonderful to go out on land you've protected, knowing that it will always remain wild."
Transactions involving conservation buyers can be beneficial for all concerned: the sellers obtain a fair price for their land, the realtors receive their commissions, and the buyers gain tax advantages (from the easement gift), a beautiful property, and the satisfaction of knowing that they've helped to save an important natural setting. In each case, the land trust provides support and technical guidance in facilitating the property's long-term protection. The trust works cooperatively with real estate brokers but does not act as a broker or accept commissions.
Some conservation buyers choose not to retain the property they help to protect. These conservation investors can help land trusts by moving quickly to acquire a threatened property and then allowing the trust the time needed to raise funds for a subsequent land trust purchase (see the sidebar on Investing in Conservation).
By leasing land to a land trust or government agency experienced in land management, you can reduce your management responsibilities and cultivate a working partnership (which could lead to collaboration on more permanent protection). A lease should specify the rights you retain, permitted land uses, the time period the lease covers, and what happens if lease terms are broken. Recognizing the significant cost of the holder's management responsibilities, landowners often choose to lease their land for only a token fee. Land leases are not deductible as charitable gifts, however, regardless of their market value.
Investing in Conservation
Opportunities to protect prize natural lands are often "limited time offers." When the Noyes family approached Maine Coast Heritage Trust in 1996 to discuss the planned sale of their 2,400 acres in Franklin, there was little time to act. Neither MCHT nor the State (which holds nearly 15,000 acres of the surrounding land) had the liquid assets to purchase the property. The landowners wanted to see the land preserved but couldn't wait indefinitely: if conservation groups couldn't act, it would likely be sold for residential development and gravel extraction.
The property included Fiery Mountain and the entirety of Little Pond--a wild gem no one wanted to lose. "All small, wild ponds are wonderful," observes Steve Spencer, Outdoor Recreation Specialist with the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands (BP&L), "but Little Pond is more wonderful than others."
MCHT sought help from Lyme Timber Company, a limited partnership that specializes in conservation-minded investments. Lyme agreed to step in and purchase the property in order to give the State more time to locate funds for acquiring land on Fiery Mountain, a boat launch site, and two conservation easements covering a large portion of the property. Lyme also granted MCHT and the BP&L a two-year, no-cost option to purchase 882 acres surrounding Little Pond.
"Lyme Timber played a critical intermediary role by giving us time to fundraise," notes MCHT's Director of Land Protection, David MacDonald. "They helped us to preserve the most significant lands for conservation and outdoor recreation." "We were able to recoup our investment," explains Peter Stein of Lyme Timber, "while contributing to a significant expansion of one of the State's most impressive landholdings."
Restrictive covenants guiding the future use of a property may be placed in any deed when the land is transferred. These restrictions are much like those contained in conservation easements although they tend to be less permanent.
Landowners can impose deed restrictions on their land when they deed it to others, but only to benefit land they retain. Neighboring landowners can also exchange mutual restrictions to benefit one another's land (see section below on "mutual covenants"), or one owner can receive compensation from a neighbor in return for restrictions benefiting that neighbor's land. Deed restrictions may involve provisions such as setback requirements, rights to unobstructed views, or limits on building or subdivision. Courts will uphold deed restrictions and mutual covenants as long as there is a benefited parcel, the restrictions are reasonable, and they accomplish a socially or legally acceptable goal. However, these methods are not as reliable as conservation easements in providing permanent land protection because future owners may not be committed or able to enforce the provisions over time. Future owners of the restricted parcel and the benefited parcel can even agree to terminate the restrictions. Moreover, the restrictions will automatically disappear if one landowner acquires both parcels.
The presence of deed restrictions may lower the price if land is sold, or decrease the value of a gift donated to a charitable organization or agency. However, the IRS does not allow one to claim the loss in value resulting from a private deed restriction as a charitable deduction.
Landowners may protect neighboring land or a view they share by exchanging mutual covenants. Each landowner's covenant, which is a form of deed restriction, can be enforced by the other landowners, but only if they choose to do so. Covenants offer no tax deductions and are not a permanent means of conservation since they can be nullified by subsequent agreements of all owners or by failure to enforce.
A management agreement enables a land trust or government agency to help plan for the care of your land's resources. Management agreements are often used to protect plant and wildlife habitats or keep scenic fields open. The land trust or public agency generally provides technical advice and assistance while the landowner carries out the plan. The agreement is made for a set time period but is renewable and can be canceled by either party with appropriate notice. Payments are rarely involved, but in some instances owners who enter into resource management agreements with government agencies may become eligible for tax breaks, low-cost loans or reimbursement programs (see current use tax programs).