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Land Protection Overview

Why Preserve

Open, natural spaces benefit us all – protecting our air and water, preserving habitat for wildlife, and providing wholesome venues for recreation and a balm for the spirit in our beautiful vistas and byways. Maintaining a healthy balance between nature and development can bring a better quality of life and higher property values.

This public benefit of preserving land has been recognized by our federal and state governments, which have enacted policies to encourage and compensate landowners willing to set-aside property in perpetuity for conservation purposes. Those that meet program requirements are eligible for:
  • Federal income tax charitable contribution deduction (which may be carried forward for up to 15 years),
  • Federal Estate tax reduction and exclusion,
  • Virginia State Tax Credit (which may be carried forward for up to 10 years, and any unused portion of which may be sold on the open market), and
  • Local Real Estate Tax Reduction
The following laws and regulations spell out the specifics of not only the tax benefits, but the requirements for participation in these programs, including what types of property are eligible, what actions are necessary to establish and maintain conservation, and how to value the resulting “contribution” made by foregoing development potential.
  • US Internal Revenue Code section 170(h),
  • US Treasury Regulations section 1.170A-14
  • VA Code section 10.1-1700 et seq (Open Space Land Act)
  • VA Code section 10.1-1009 et seq (Conservation Easement Act)
  • VA Code section 58.1-510 —58.1-513 (Virginia Land Conservation Incentives Act)

What Land Is Eligible?

The US Internal Revenue Code sets forth the purposes that must be served if land is to be eligible for a charitable donation deduction; only land determined appropriate to meet at least one of these purposes may be considered. The purposes are:
  • To preserve land areas for outdoor recreation by, or the education of, the general public,
  • To protect a relatively natural habitat of fish, wildlife, or plants, or similar ecosystem,
  • To preserve open space (including farmland and forest land) where such preservation is for the scenic enjoyment of the general public or pursuant to federal, state, or local governmental conservation policy that yields significant public benefit, or
  • To preserve a historically important land area or a certified historic structure.
US Treasury regulations (section 1.170A-14) provide a high level of detail and guidance as to what is allowable under each of these purposes. Virginia state law likewise defines conservation purposes which must be met to be eligible for its income and property tax benefits; VA requirements are largely consistent with federal requirements.

What Constitutes a Donation – and – What is an Easement?

To qualify for the federal and state tax benefits, land must be set-aside “in perpetuity” (or forever) for eligible conservation purposes. This can be accomplished in a number of ways:
  • Outright fee-simple donation of the property to an eligible organization, inclusive or exclusive of mineral rights
  • Establishment of a conservation easement with an eligible organization, which legally restricts future development of the property based upon the terms of the easement. The vast majority of donations – to HVLC and nationwide - are conservation easements.
In a conservation easement, the property owner retains ownership of the land but legally commits to forgoing future development. The specific requirements and prohibitions of each easement are unique, determined by the features of the property and the purpose(s) it is intended to meet. Easements must be granted in perpetuity, and the organization that holds the easement is not only empowered – but required - to enforce its terms.
The value of the donation represented by a conservation easement is assessed based upon the loss of potential value that might have been gained if the property had been developed and is determined by a qualified Appraiser.

The Role of the Historic Virginia Land Conservancy (HVLC)

Both federal and state law stipulate the type of organization that must hold a conservation easement if the donor is to be eligible for tax benefits. US Treasury regulations state that to be considered a donee : “an organization must be a qualified (non-profit) organization, have a commitment to protect the conservation purposes of the donation, and have the resources to enforce the restrictions.”

The HVLC is just such an organization, accredited by the Land Trust Alliance and with an established record of responsibly holding conservation easements for over fifteen years. The HVLC has the experience and network to help a property owner to first determine if an easement on his/her land would be eligible for tax benefits, and then put together the team of professionals needed to successfully navigate the process of establishing an easement that is properly valued and fully compliant with federal and state law. Once an easement is established, the HVLC becomes the steward of that property, conducting an annual, comprehensive visit to ensure that the terms of easement are met, with the duty to bring legal action if necessary for enforcement.

The HVLC has established its own criteria – consistent with federal and state law – as to what types of property it will consider for an easement. These criteria are necessarily rigorous to ensure that any easement it accepts is eligible under all applicable laws.
HVLC works with landowners, state and local agencies, conservation groups, developers, and other organizations to promote a healthy balance of land use primarily on the Virginia Peninsula and Middle Peninsula by protecting and preserving significant natural, scenic, agricultural and historic land in the lower James, York and Rappahannock River watersheds.