How to Examine Conservation Easements

How to learn more about conservation easements and land trusts in your area

 

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, "Write-off on the Range."

With some digging, you should be able to find out the locations of conservation easements in your area, and the basic terms, such as which activities are allowed and not allowed on the land. You may be able to find the "baseline study" showing the land's initial condition, the land-management goals, and efforts to monitor activities on the land. But for many easement deals, it will be impossible to find the financial terms -- the appraisals and any tax deductions taken by the landowner.

A good place to begin is your local county recorder's office. Conservation easements are typically attached to the deed for the land, and recorded by the county.

Most counties have computer indexes that allow quick searching of records. However, data from the early 1990s and ‘80s may not be available in computerized form. So if you're looking for an older easement, or if you're doing a comprehensive search, you may have to search through microfiches or printed pages.

If you're focused on a particular piece of land, or a particular landowner, you can probably find all the county records fairly easily. If you're looking for all the easements in a geographic area, it could take a lot of digging.

Be aware that when you search the indexes, you may get hits for many different kinds of easements. Most may be for underground utilities; you'll have to sift out the conservation easements.

Once you find a recorded conservation easement, the paperwork may be brief, or it may run dozens of pages. It should lay out the terms of land management. It should also identify the land trust or government agency that holds and monitors the easement.

If a government agency -- such as a county open-space program or a state wildlife department -- is involved in the easement deal, your best chance of finding additional information is to check with the agency. Agencies can be involved in two primary ways: They buy and hold easements, or they provide partial funding for easements held by land trusts. In either case, the baseline studies and monitoring reports should be publicly available. You should also be able to learn how much government money was spent.

If the easement deal involves a land trust, the trust may provide you with maps, as well as various studies and reports. If a trust is reluctant to to provide information, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is concealing problems; the trust may simply be concerned about the landowners’ privacy.

To learn more about a land trust, or any other nonprofit organization, use the GuideStar Web site -- www.guidestar.org. There, you can find information about the land trust's headquarters, mission, board members and staff, budget and accomplishments. You can also download the land trust's "990" tax forms, which must be filed each year with the Internal Revenue Service, and contain additional details about the trust. Try to determine whether the land trust has the resources to monitor its easements, and whether landowners who donated easements are also board members of the trust (arguably a conflict of interest). To use GuideStar, you register online, then you can access the basics and the 990s for free. There's a fee for accessing more detailed information.

You can also ask landowners for information about their conservation easements. Some landowners are open to inquiries, but probably most will be reluctant to reveal easement information. Ask politely, and see what you can find out.

You probably won't be able to see the appraisal that determined the easement's value for tax purposes. The land trust might not even see the appraisal. You may be able to learn the appraiser's name, and then you can check the appraiser's credentials, for a general sense of how proper the financial terms are.

If the landowner takes income-tax deductions, only the landowner and the government tax agencies know those numbers (mainly the federal Internal Revenue Service, and in states that allow a state-income tax deduction, the state revenue departments).

For statistics, maps and information generally, try various state agencies: The revenue department may track easements for tax purposes, and natural resource agencies may do land-ownership mapping that includes information on easements. They may have centralized records that cover the whole state as well as your county.

You can also check for lawsuits arising from easement disputes in state courts and federal courts. The court clerk's office will help you search court records for the names of landowners and land trusts. Sometimes lawsuits reveal financial details or other problems.

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