A conservation easement is a perpetual, undivided interest in property that may be created in a variety of ways. It may be created through a voluntary, legal agreement between a private landowner and a government agency or a qualified nonprofit group, and is designed to conserve open space, water recharge areas, environmentally sensitive lands, wildlife habitat or historic features on a specific parcel of land.
Conservation easements may be donated or sold to the St. Johns River Water Management District by landowners. Often conservation easements are proposed to off-set environmental impacts from development and, in these instances, they are a component of a mitigation plan for a permit issued by the district.
As legal documents, conservation easements are recorded in the public records of the county in which the property is located.
Frequently asked questions
Conservation easements give the district certain, specific rights to the property, but do not grant outright land ownership to the district. Through the easement, the landowner retains title to the land but gives up certain rights or uses. Many times, the restrictions imposed by the easement document safeguard the land by prohibiting the construction of buildings or other structures, excavating soil, or removing or destroying trees or native vegetation. For example, a cattle rancher may enter into a conservation easement agreement whereby he or she continues to ranch under certain mutually agreed upon conditions and practices but relinquishes the right to extract minerals or develop residential communities on the property.
Conservation easements are perpetual. They are transferred with the land from owner to owner when the property is sold and remain enforceable after the issuance of a tax deed. The landowner can either donate the easement or be paid for it. Easements may be specifically tailored to meet the needs of both the landowner and the district.
Florida is a state with an environment like no other. Marshes, rivers, lakes and sparkling springs dot the Florida landscape, attracting visitors and new residents every day. As Florida’s population increases, so does development, increasing the demands on the state’s natural resources.
Through the use of conservation easements, landowners and the district are preserving land and protecting water resources, which are also helping to ensure that Florida’s wildlife will always have suitable homes and that current and future generations will have an opportunity to enjoy a healthy environment.
The landowner retains fee ownership of the land and all rights associated with the property not specifically relinquished in the conservation easement. Any use that does not conflict with the purpose and terms of the easement is permissible, including selling the land and bequeathing it by will. The landowner’s responsibilities include those specified in the easement. The payment of property taxes is still a responsibility of the landowner, but a reduction in that amount is one of the possible tax benefits available to landowners.
The district has the right to make sure that the conditions defined in the conservation easement are followed. The district has the right to access the land for inspections or other reasons established in the terms and conditions of the conservation easement document. If the terms of the easement are violated, the district has the right to seek enforcement remedies.
Any conservation easements recorded in public records prior to the purchase of your property will be included in the title search. Because an easement is recorded in public records, the public, including landowners, are put on notice that the easement exists. The conservation easement document or the recorded plat for your subdivision should contain a legal description and sketch, showing the location and dimensions of the preserved area on your property.
While the boundary of a conservation easement may be permanently marked with survey posts or stakes, as with any property boundary, only a survey by a certified land surveyor can accurately delineate the boundary of a conservation easement.
If the conservation easement was donated to the district for mitigation, the permittee should consult with district staff to prepare a management plan to meet water resource and habitat values for the specific piece of property. This may include the use of prescribed fire or roller chopping to remove undergrowth to reduce the risk of wildfire or the use of herbicides to remove exotic plants. Specifics will be listed in a written document such as a permit or letter from the district.
Otherwise, management of the property may be governed by a district land management plan.
A site-specific management plan can be developed for properties within a conservation easement that take into account the natural habitat type and location of the property. When planning management of property within a conservation easement, a property owner should consult district staff to prepare a site-specific plan and obtain written approval prior to any management activity. The approved plan will provide details on the type of activity allowed and the frequency that the management activity should be conducted, as well as the expiration date of the plan.
Conservation easements usually prohibit the destruction, clearing or trimming of any vegetation within the easement area. An exception to this is the removal of exotic or nuisance plants. At times, these plants can be removed as part of a site-specific management plan. The district can help you identify exotic or nuisance plants. In addition, information about exotic and nuisance plants can be found on the websites of the Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council and the University of South Florida’s Atlas of Florida Vascular Plants.
Dead trees and other vegetation provide invaluable habitat for a diversity of wildlife. Removal of a dead tree could alter some of the easement’s natural functions that provide environmental protection. However, if a dead or damaged tree poses a hazard to a residence, the district may give permission to remove the tree, or to minimize the hazard in other ways.
Adding materials, such as in the construction of a trail, or removing soil, rock, mulch or other materials, or removing vegetation, is generally prohibited in conservation easements.
Construction of boardwalks or piers is allowed only if the easement’s legal records specifically state the right to do so has been retained by the landowner.
Typically, conservation easements do not grant the right of public access.
Protection of a conservation easement area is the responsibility of the property owner, or whoever performs the maintenance. The district is not the landowner and is not responsible for maintaining the conservation easement. However, the district does monitor the status of conservation areas to ensure they are being maintained in accordance with the provisions of the agreement.
If you do not know who is responsible for the maintenance of a conservation easement where you live, the district recommends you contact the homeowner’s association, which is often the responsible party.
The district realizes that the majority of homeowners understand the importance of conservation easements for protecting Florida’s natural environment, and many are willing to work together to resolve problems arising from unauthorized activities. However, because certain property rights to a conservation easement are given to the district, the district may take the necessary means to protect a conservation easement area and the natural resources found there. The courts can force those who violate conditions of an easement to restore the damaged property and pay fines or penalties for damaging the property.
Most land developments, including residential subdivisions, require permits from the district to ensure the development will not cause flooding, degrade water bodies, or adversely impact wetlands or other natural resources. To protect wetlands or to offset impacts from permitted construction projects, the wetlands that remain on a permitted property, along with natural areas bordering them, often are placed in a conservation easement. Frequently, these easements are located on or behind future home lots.
Conservation easements may provide some economic benefits to the adjacent landowners. In fact, studies suggest that properties located in close proximity to preserved lands retain their value better than properties that are not located near preserved lands.
Landowners can also receive certain tax advantages for entering into a conservation easement. When making a land donation for a qualified conservation purpose, federal income tax deductions can be made. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) regulations require the property to have significant conservation values, and the property must meet IRS tax code provisions. Savings in estate taxes can be made when passing on land protected by a conservation easement. Though the payment of property taxes is still a responsibility of the landowner, a reduction in that amount is a possible tax benefit. The district recommends that landowners seek professional tax counsel to determine the tax benefits for donating an easement.
Negotiated easements provide a variety of benefits that can be specially tailored to each private landowner. Conservation easements can enable landowners to protect the property’s resources for future generations, while allowing land uses such as ranching and timber production to continue. The resulting partnerships can allow landowners to achieve the goal of retaining their land in a conserving land use in the face of development pressures and economic burdens. Landowners may also receive certain tax advantages for entering into a conservation easement.
To discuss donating or selling a conservation easement to the district, contact the district’s Real Estate Services Program at 386-329-4335.
For questions about easements donated as mitigation, contact you local coordinator listed in the permitting contacts.