Protecting Land with a VOF Easement

Thanks for your interest in VOF’s open-space easement program. Open-space easements in Virginia are one of the most powerful voluntary tools for protecting land in the nation. This information is designed to give you an overview of what easements are, how they work, how you convey them, how they benefit the public, and what some of the associated tax benefits may be of using them to protect open space.

Under Virginia’s Open-Space Land Act, open-space easements are legal agreements between landowners and a public body, such as the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, that limit development rights while allowing landowners to continue living on and managing the land for farming, forestry, recreational, wildlife habitat, and other compatible uses. Easement restrictions are embodied in a deed that is permanently bound to the property and passed down to future owners. Easements are designed to protect a variety of natural and cultural values, including:

  • Agriculture
  • Forestry
  • Natural habitat & biological diversity
  • Historic preservation
  • Natural-resource based outdoor recreation or education
  • Watershed preservation
  • Scenic open space
  • Conservation lands designated by federal, state, or local governments

These conservation values are the heart and soul of our work. VOF easements are not designed to lock up land or prevent all development. We craft easement restrictions that allow land to remain workable and livable for future owners.

The process of protecting land with an easement is driven by landowners and completely voluntary. When landowners decide that a VOF easement is the right tool for protecting their land, they reach out to our staff. We listen to landowners’ goals, and then work with them and their legal advisers to craft restrictions that best suit each project. We visit the property and document its conservation values, which provide public benefit. We also make sure that the restrictions do not conflict with a locality’s comprehensive plan or would interfere with any planned public infrastructure. After a deed is drafted, we obtain approval from our board of trustees. Eventually, the deed is recorded in a circuit court. Landowners can change their mind at any point in the process up until the deed is signed and recorded. Once the deed has been recorded, it cannot be undone.

Although easements may either be donated or sold to VOF, the vast majority are donated. In Virginia, landowners who donate easements may be eligible for federal, state, and local tax benefits because of the associated public benefits easements provide. Easements can also be a powerful estate planning tool, allowing families to leave a legacy of land to their heirs while potentially reducing estate taxes.

There are usually costs associated with conveying an easement to VOF. Some of these costs are associated with the services that we provide as an easement holder (click here for our fee schedule). Additionally, because we cannot offer legal or financial advice, landowners must obtain their own advisers. We strongly recommend working with advisers who have experience working with easements, and especially those who have worked with VOF on other successful projects. Landowners who cannot afford the costs associated with conveying an easement may apply for grants from our Preservation Trust Fund.

The process of conveying an easement to VOF can take several months to several years, depending on the complexity of the project. Visit our Help Desk for more detailed information about the easement process.

After an easement has recorded, VOF is responsible for the long-term stewardship of its conservation values. We work on behalf of the public interest to ensure that landowners abide by the restrictions in the deed of easement.

VOF views open-space preservation on private land as a partnership with landowners to promote livable, workable, and sustainable landscapes throughout the Commonwealth. We take our responsibility to protect the public interest seriously, and we accomplish our work by forging and maintaining strong relationships with our partner landowners. We believe the key to successful stewardship is a partnership built on trust, transparency, accountability, and flexibility.

Since VOF holds one of the largest portfolios of conserved land in the nation, stewardship is a challenging endeavor that requires us to assist thousands of landowners on a wide range of complex legal and technical issues. Our highly trained and dedicated team of stewardship staff performs many duties to maintain the conservation values of protected properties. These duties include:

  • Visiting conserved lands to ensure the easement provisions are being upheld;
  • Utilizing remote and technological methods of monitoring easements to augment site visits;
  • Answering landowner questions regarding stewardship or management of their land (wildlife management, forested lands, agricultural lands, riparian buffers, etc.);
  • Conducting reviews and approvals for activities on the property (construction, subdivisions, harvesting timber, etc.) when required by the easement;
  • Interpreting provisions in easement deeds for the landowner;
  • Maintaining updated stewardship files on VOF easement properties;
  • Tracking land records, including changes in ownership, current tax assessments, and building permits;
  • Resolving easement violations.

While most of our stewardship services are provided free of charge, we do have fees for services that involve resolving violations, amending easements, or providing a benefit to the landowner that does not also benefit the Commonwealth (such as boundary line adjustments between two easements). We also are happy to provide information about other conservation programs and incentives that may be of interest to landowners. These are just some of the ways that we help landowners to achieve their short- and long-term stewardship goals.

Please visit our Help Desk for a wealth of information geared toward landowners who have already protected their land with a VOF easement.

Because protecting open space is good for water quality, wildlife habitat, scenic beauty, recreational access, and other values enjoyed by the public, donated easements may be considered charitable gifts under state and federal tax law, and therefore are eligible for tax deductions and credits. Land that is protected by an open-space easement may also yield reductions in local and estate taxes, depending on your circumstances.

VOF does not provide tax advice, so it is important to consult with a tax lawyer and accountant to better understand the tax benefits and how they might apply to your situation.

For the latest detailed information about the potential tax benefits associated with land conservation and easement donations, please visit our Help Desk.

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