Agricultural Conservation Easements
The primary purpose of an Agricultural Conservation Easement is to protect the agricultural soils, agricultural viability, and agricultural productivity of a property in perpetuity by limiting non-agricultural uses of the property.
What is it?
It is a voluntary, legally recorded permanent deed restriction place on the property. The easement or “development right” may be donated or sold (or a combination of the two) usually to a land trust which then holds (and manages) the easement. Land protected from development with an easement remains in private ownership.
Pros and cons
Agricultural easements help farmers balance goals of:
- generating revenue for farming or retirement;
- making their land more affordable to future farmers;
- keeping their farmland in farming;
- maintaining a treasured legacy of sustainable farm stewardship.
Agricultural conservation easements are private transactions, entered into for perpetuity, and thus harder to undo compared to other land protection land use strategies.
The process can take some time to negotiate and carry out. The cost of buying easements on a significant scale can be prohibitive. It is also important that the “holder” of the easements has the capacity to ensure that the agricultural land is managed as intended.
Easements and the Comprehensive Plan
Though the owner of farmland is the only one who can decide to place an easement on it, the comprehensive plan should still contain policies and strategies to encourage the use of easements. Easements are particularly useful to protect areas expected face significant future development pressure.
Easements can be used strategically as part of achieving the broader development goals of the community – for example when a community wants to reinforce growth area boundaries or maintain separation between different developed areas. If the community is considering ways to purchase development rights, it is useful to do an analysis of where easements can achieve the greatest impact, compared to other tools.
If easements will be referenced or required in municipal ordinances, the policies and strategies in the comprehensive plan should lay a clear foundation for them.
- Identify prime soils, soils of statewide and local importance, as well as working farms, and consult with land trusts and other “farm-friendly” organizations.
- Involve farmers in the planning process (possibly through the establishment of an Agricultural Advisory Committee);
- Encourage the donation of agricultural conservation easements.
- Approach the owners of the largest lots of prime farmland soils and engage them in a discussion on agricultural easements.
Some planning strategies where easements can be used:
- Allow developers to build at higher densities than default zoning in designated growth areas in exchange for (a fee that is set aside for) purchase of agricultural easements in strategic areas (see Transfer of Development Rights)
- Require Conservation Subdivisions in designated agricultural districts with minimum 60-70 percent of lot set aside as easement.
- As part of a Voluntary Municipal Farm Support Program, enact a program to reduce the tax burden of farmers in exchange for a 20-year (term) easement granted to the municipality.
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