Land Conservation Fact Sheet: Conservation Easements


Conservation easements are voluntary agreements that allow an individual to set aside private property to limit the type or amount of development on their property. The conservation easement can cover all or a portion of a property, and can either be permanent or last for a specified time.

Conservation easements are designed to assure that the land is preserved in its current state long after the original owners no longer control the property. By agreeing to give up or restrict the development rights for a parcel of land, a landowner can guarantee that their property will remain in a prescribed state for perpetuity while receiving tax benefits. In addition, easements can relieve property owners of the burden of managing these areas by shifting responsibility to a private organization or government agency better equipped to handle maintenance and monitoring issues.

The easement is typically described in terms of the resource it is designed to protect (e.g., agricultural, forest, historic, or open space easements) and explains and mandates the restrictions on the uses of the particular property. For this reason, conservation easements are thought to potentially contribute to protecting water quality. This is based on the idea that land set aside in a permanent conservation easement is land that will have a prescribed set of uses or activities, generally restricting future development.


Conservation easements are typically used to preserve agricultural lands and natural areas on the suburban-rural fringe that are facing development pressure. For rapidly urbanizing areas, conservation easements may be a way to preserve open space before land prices make the purchase of land containing important cultural and natural features impractical for city agencies with limited budgets. Conservation easements are not often used in ultra-urban areas, due to both the lack of available open space for purchase and the high cost of undeveloped land.

Keeping this in mind, the first step for a land owner is to determine if it meets the criteria that are used by private land trusts to determine if a property is worth managing in a conservation easement. Table 1 contains examples of some of these criteria.

Table 1. Typical Criteria that Land Trusts Use to Determine Feasibility of Entering into Conservation Easement Agreement

Natural resource value - Does the property provide a critical habitat or important environmental aspects worth preserving?
Uniqueness of the property - Does the property have unique traits worth preserving?
Size of land - Is the land large enough to have a natural resource or conservation value?
Financial considerations - Are funds available to meet all financial obligations?
Perpetuity - Is the conservation agreement a perpetual one?
Land Trusts Mission - Does the property align with the land trust's mission and organization specific criteria?

No matter whether a conservation easement is held by a government agency or a private land trust there are certain management responsibilities that must be addressed by the easement holder as well. Table 2 illustrates some of the management duties that an organization will need to perform when holding an easement.

Table 2. Responsibilities of Conservation Easement Holding Organizations

  • Ensure that the language of the easement is clear and enforceable.
  • Develop maps, descriptions and baseline documentation of the property's characteristics.
  • Monitor the use of the land on a regular basis.
  • Provide information regarding the easement to new or prospective property owners.
  • Establish a review and approval process for land activities stipulated in easement.
  • Enforce the restrictions of the easement through the legal system if necessary.
  • Maintain property/easement related records.


A number of limitations exist for using conservation easements as a stormwater management tool. One general question is the value of conservation easements over outright donation. Ownership of land by an organization prepared to manage it naturally may better protect the land from a stormwater perspective. Another issue to consider is that there is no scientific evidence linking conservation easements to water quality protection. Some of the other possible challenges include:

Cost Considerations

Table 3 summarizes the costs of maintaining green spaces with different types of uses.

Table 3. Annual Maintenance Costs of Different Types of Green Space Uses
(Adapted from CWP, 1998)
Land Use Approximate Annual Maintenance Costs Source
Natural Open Space

Only minimum maintenance, trash/debris cleanup

$75/ acre/ year NPS, 1995

Regular mowing

$270 to $240/ acre/ year Wildlife Habitat Council, 1992
Passive Recreation $200/ acre/ year NPS 1995

Case Examples

Conservation easements have been used in all parts of the country, and many private groups, both nationally and locally, exist to preserve natural lands and manage conservation easements. States also use conservation easements and land purchase programs to protect significant environmental features and tracts of open space. Maryland is one state that has been nationally recognized for its programs that provide funding for state and local parks and conservation areas. The state is one of the first to use real estate transfer taxes to pay for land conservation programs. Several programs are funded through this transfer tax of one-half of one percent ($5 per thousand) of the purchase price of a home or land or other state programs, including:

Program Open Space, which is responsible for acquiring 150,000 acres of open space for state parks and natural resource areas and more than 25,000 acres of local park land. Every county must create a Land Preservation and Recreation Plan that outlines acquisition and development goals in order to receive a portion of the 50% that is granted to local governments.

Maryland Environmental Trust, a state funded agency that helps citizen groups form and operate local land trusts and offers the land trusts technical assistance, training, grants for land protection projects and administrative expenses, and participation in the Maryland Land Trust Alliance.

Rural Legacy program, a Smart Growth Initiative that redirects existing state funds into a focused and dedicated land preservation program specifically designed to limit the adverse impacts of sprawl on agricultural lands and natural resources. The program purchases conservation easements for large contiguous tracts of agricultural, forest and natural areas subject to development pressure, and fee interests in open space where public access and use is needed.


Center for Watershed Protection. Better Site Design: A Handbook for Changing Development Rules in Your Community. Center for Watershed Protection, Inc., Ellicott City, MD. 1998.

Daniels, T. and D. Bowers. 1997. Holding Our Ground: Protecting America's Farms and Farmland. Washington DC: Island Press.

Diehl, J. and T. Barnett, eds. 1988. The Conservation Easement Handbook. Alexandria, VA: Land Trust Alliance and Trust For Public Land.

Schear, P and T. W. Blaine. 1998. Ohio State University Fact Sheet: Conservation Easements. CDFS-1261-98, Land Use Series. Colombus, OH.

The Trust for Public Land. 1998. Maryland Conservation Easement Program. Trust for Public Land website. Online at