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What Is A Conservation Agreement?
A conservation agreement, also referred to as a conservation easement, is a voluntary contract signed by the landowner that essentially determines how the property can be used in the future. The agreement typically prohibits industrial, commercial and retail uses, residential subdivisions, parking lots, billboards, and mining. But uses and activities that do not impair the conservation values of the property are allowed, such as maintaining the family residence, adding a limited number of new residences, timber management, farming, fishing and hunting. Basically, the conservation agreement ensures that the property stays the way it is today.

If I Sign A Conservation Agreement, Can I Sell The Property Or Give It To My Children?
Yes. The conservation agreement has no effect on the title to your land. You can put the property on the market and sell it or you can give it to your children. The agreement is recorded at the courthouse and thus applies to all future owners of the property.

Does A Conservation Agreement Mean That The Public Has Access To My Property?
No, unless you expressly allow public access in the conservation agreement. Most agreements do not. How Is A Conservation Agreement Enforced? What If The Agreement Is Violated? The conservation agreement gives a qualified land trust organization, such as Upstate Forever, the right and responsibility to enforce the agreement. So for example, if a future owner tried to do something on the property that violated the conservation agreement, such as building a strip mall, the land trust can have it stopped (by going to court if necessary).

The conservation agreement does not give the land trust the right to use or do anything on the property. Its sole obligation is to make sure the conservation agreement is honored.

What Are The Costs Associated With A Conservation Agreement?

The most significant costs are usually the fees incurred in consulting with the landowner’s attorney and financial advisor. Signing a conservation agreement is an important decision and should be done only after carefully considering all of the implications. Other costs include an appraisal (this must be done in order to receive any tax benefits), title examination, and fees charged by the land trust. Our parent organization, Upstate Forever, requires a $1,000 fee for the transaction and request a one-time, tax-deductible contribution to our Land Trust Endowment Fund, a separate fund that is used to help us meet the costs of monitoring and enforcing conservation agreements.

Why Should I Place A Conservation Agreement On My Land?
If you own land with important natural or historic resources, donating a conservation agreement can be one of the best ways to conserve the land you love, protect America’s natural heritage, maintain your private property rights and realize significant federal, state, and estate tax benefits. For landowners who are “land rich and cash poor,” a conservation agreement may literally save the land by not forcing your heirs to sell the property in order to pay the estate taxes.

What Are The Possible Tax Benefits?
Both Congress and the South Carolina General Assembly have provided significant tax incentives to landowners to sign conservation agreements. To be eligible for these benefits, the transaction must meet a “significant public benefit test” that basically requires the property to have significant historic or conservation values that are protected by the agreement. If this requirement is met, the potential tax benefit is essentially the difference in the market value of the property without a conservation agreement and its market value subject to the agreement. 

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Are There Other Options For Preserving Land?

Yes. Although the conservation agreement is the most widely used tool for preserving private land, there are several other options that Upstate Forever, Oconee Forever’s parent organization, would be glad to discuss with the landowner. One of these is an outright donation of the land, in which the owner transfers title to Upstate Forever or a government entity. In this case, the owner can claim an income tax deduction equal to the land's current fair market value, and it is not necessary to satisfy the "public benefit test" or any of the other requirements that apply to conservation agreements. And of course, donating the property completely removes it from the owner's estate and avoids any additional property taxes.

Another option is a bargain sale in which the owner sells the property for less than its fair market value. In that case, the amount of the deduction would be "the bargain," that is, the difference between the fair market value and the sales price.

Other options include the donation of a remainder interest (the owner continues to live on the land and at his death title is transferred to the land trust); donation of the land by will; and leases and management agreements.

What Is The Next Step?

Contact Oconee Forever, Upstate Forever, or another land trust working in your area. We would be glad and honored to meet with you and your family, to see your property, and to talk with you more about a conservation agreement. “Win-win” is an overused term these days, but we cannot think of a better way to describe conservation agreements – a win for you and a win for your land!

*Information taken from http://www.upstateforever.org