Land conservation is a priority for a majority of Floridians, as evidenced in November 2014 by voter passage of the “Florida Water and Land Conservation Initiative.” The initiative, also known as Amendment 1, provides funds to acquire and manage conservation lands.
Landowners are also concerned about land conservation. A growing number of them are considering conservation easements or other government-sanctioned conservation transactions to preserve and protect the future of their farms or ranches. Benefits to the landowners include:
- Preserving the land’s heritage
- Retaining ownership of the land
- Sustaining the land without fear of unwanted development
- Offsetting federal estate taxes for heirs
- Maximizing the value of the land
THE BASICS OF CONSERVATION
Land conservation transactions are multi-faceted, assuming their structure through numerous types of agreements, deeds, easements and even donations. A conservation transaction is made by a landowner with federal, state, local or non-profit agencies or groups. It provides a financial benefit for the landowner in exchange for restrictions affecting the future use of the land. Those restrictions provide long-term protection or enhancement of natural resources such as water and wildlife.
A conservation easement is one of the primary forms of land conservation transactions. A landowner selling or donating a conservation easement typically is permitted the following uses of the land:
- Low-intensity agriculture
- Limited housing units for family members
- Subdivision of land
- Recreational uses including hunting, fishing and eco-tourism activities
There are usually restrictions prohibiting development of the property, some agricultural uses, harvesting of wetland timber, road construction and mining.
Landowners can sell or lease the property with an easement, but all future owners must maintain easement requirements. Conservation easements are permanent (perpetual) and cannot be changed, so landowners should carefully consider all aspects of an easement.
Conservation transactions at the federal, state, county, local government and water management district levels are intricate and distinct from each other. Each employs a process that is unique to that program’s purpose and need. The processes also change; qualification requirements evolve over time and sometimes are abruptly altered with changes in government or regulatory agencies. The process is more complex than filling out a simple form.
Landowners considering conservation transactions should understand property rights issues, the extent of land use restriction, retention of title, the ability to sell or lease property, tax implications and much more.
Dean Saunders and Charlie Houder of SVN | Saunders Real Estate (SVNSRE) are uniquely qualified to guide landowners through the regulation, politics and real estate issues involved in conservation transactions.
As of August 2015, Saunders had completed 56 transactions involving conservation easements and sales. Those transactions encompassed more than 111,000 acres with a value of more than $340 million.
Houder, during his 28 years with two water management districts in Florida, oversaw the acquisition of more than 307,000 acres of environmentally sensitive land and conservation easements. Those acquisitions had a value of more than $224 million.
SVNSRE has also developed an assessment tool that allows for an on-site inventory of a landowner’s objectives. Those objectives can be compared to the attributes of the landowner’s property to find the best match among the various conservation programs. This reveals potential options and helps create a recommended course of action to best achieve the landowner’s objectives.