It is with some exaggeration that someone remarked recently that Winkie McKay Smith had introduced conservation easement to Clarke County. However that’s an understandable exaggeration given the energy and commitment that Winkie has brought to the issue and the years of service she has committed to the Clarke County Easement Authority. As was mentioned in a earlier post, before the Christmas Season, Winkie had introduced us, Holy Cross Abbey, to the possibility and walked us through our first easement. I asked her to contribute her reflections on the topic to inform our readers and motivate property owners. Please feel free to share this post with anyone you know who may benefit from it.
Conservation easements, a subject of recent importance to the Abbey, is a subject very dear to my heart. Since donating an easement is in some ways an act of faith, the final decision to do so is often postponed until an “ah-ha” moment occurs! Here are a few facts that contribute to the epiphany.
A conservation easement is a voluntary agreement between a landowner (donor) and a legitimate “holding” entity (donee) that permanently limits development of a tract of land.
By limiting the amount of disturbance (“development”), land continues to be open space. This has many benefits for the creatures living in the vicinity, and I will mention a few: undisturbed (and unpaved) areas improve water catchment and filtration, augmenting replacement and contributing to the cleanliness of ground water. Most of our County is served by well water, so this feature is of prime concern. The vegetation which open space promotes improves air quality by replacing CO2 with O2 through photosynthesis. It also creates viable habitat for many native species of wildlife. Large areas are made available for growing local produce for our citizens both in the County and in the larger metropolitan area. This furthers conservation by cutting down the expense and infrastructure needed to ship produce long distances, and makes treatment with preservatives unnecessary. From the introspective side, open undisturbed tracts create natural vistas which are tranquil and reassuring.
Although land in easement is not automatically accessible to the public (it remains in the private ownership of the deed-holder), it creates permanently undeveloped areas which can be available for recreational uses (with permission of the owner, of course) such as hunting, biking, hiking, birding, trail-riding, cross-country skiing, etc..
Citizens benefit from a decreased demand for expensive infrastructure (roads, schools, water and sewage treatment, trash removal, landfills, etc.) which helps keep property taxes in check. Studies have reliably shown that houses require @$1.20 in services for every $1.00 paid by that household in property taxes, while open land only uses @$0.28 of every dollar paid in.
The primary motivation for most individual landowners to place permanent easement on their property is love for the land and a commitment to its protection and stewardship. There are many financial benefits to the donor; state and federal tax deductions, state tax credits, and large estate tax benefits as well as lower assessments for the local property taxes. In some cases, actual cash payments for some or all of the value of the easements are available through federal, state and local programs.
On a personal note, having placed our land in easement long before the state tax credits, estate tax exemptions and cash payments were possible, I can say that our primary motivation was to advocate for the land itself. My husband and I firmly believe that all of the land on our planet is a gift of God to his creatures, and we have been given the priceless opportunity to be a steward of his gift, not only for our lifetime, but for generations to come.
Winkie McKay Smith