Property Acquisition and Easements

Conservationists, including conservation commissions and agencies, agricultural land trusts, watershed associations, parks and open space groups, and traditional land trusts, regularly acquire land or partial interests in land to protect it. Wetlands protection laws and the framework of the National Environmental Protection Act track the general outlines of historic preservation laws at the local and federal levels, but a large proportion of conservation activity in the country is dedicated to private, voluntary land transactions. 

Some of these deals are outright purchases or acquisition through donation, trade, or bargain sale, while many are transfers of partial interests, including development rights or easements. When a conservation organization acquires a site outright, they might make it into a publicly accessible preserve or park, or lease it to a sensitive user, or resell it after putting long-term protections in place. Easements are a tool that can be used to protect natural, historic, cultural, scenic, agricultural, or social values, and they can be created to last for perpetuity or for a term of years. For information on what an easement is, what it can do, and how changes in the federal tax code affect deductibility of easement donations, read our easements overview.   

For preservationists, saving a place through acquisition can mean everything from attracting private investment from a preservation developer for rehabilitation and reuse, to a preservation organization taking ownership and operating the site as a museum or other community use, to acquisition of a preservation easement or development rights.

Considerations

  •  In the conservation and preservation contexts, acquisition of full or partial property interests gives an organization or agency the capacity to protect the site from inappropriate or destructive changes.
  •  As a voluntary tool, acquisition can usually occur without a public vote.
  •  It is a flexible tool that can combine protection of many values, and can be configured in a wide range of structures.
  •  This approach gives organizations a very tangible stake in the community and the cause.
  •  These real estate interests can be a liability to an organization, creating lingering obligations, and any deal presents inherent risks.  Protecting land this way requires considerable legal and other professional assistance.  
  •  When accepting donations of real estate interests, it is important for organizations to ensure that the acquisitions is strategic and advances well-conceived protection priorities.         

Comprehensive Protection and Real Property Interests

Because conservation organizations and agencies often use the acquisition approach, it is fairly common for them to end up with a stake in a property that contains historic resources, along with the natural and/or agricultural resources that drew them into the protection project. Most conservationists could really use some preservation help now and the, whether a land trust is struggling with planning for a small historic bridge in their preserve's trail system, greening their historic downtown headquarters, or trying to determine how to deal with a donor's wish that a historic cemetery is preserved as part of a conservation easement project. Sometimes, this means a phone call to the local historic commission or State Historic Preservation Office. Other times, retaining a preservation professional can solve their problem, or a formal partnership with a preservation nonprofit is in order. 

The most meaningful assistance of all is often the most basic – any preservationist can:

  • create relationships with conservationists
  • help them understand and get excited about historic resources their work could affect
  • connect them with resources that can spark good planning for assessment, preservation, use, and/or maintenance

Building a relationship with your local or regional land trust and serving as a resource to them can greatly help facilitate protection of historic resources as part of land conservation projects. 

Preservationists can also work to save whole places through their own management of real property interests. Historic sites are having great success in ensuring lasting protection of their landscapes through transfer of conservation easements to land trusts. Often, they are partnering with land trusts to acquire conservation easements on important viewsheds beyond the bounds of the site, as well. Ideally, a preservation organization negotiating an easement donation on a historic home would also identify opportunities to connect the owner with an agricultural agency to keep a farm in production, or with a land trust, for an easement on sensitive habitat. 

In many places, preservationists and conservationists have forged alliances, formal or informal, adding dimension to their ownership and easement projects. Models for these kinds of partnerships abound. In order to make sure that assets aren't destroyed or left vulnerable, we need strong relationships between the conservation and preservation communities, at all levels. 

Resources