Conservation easements

Wildfire risk reduction in district conservation easements

(Easements conveyed solely for mitigation or to meet other regulatory requirements)

Public and private land managers use prescribed fire to control fuels that build up in natural areas. This practice lessens the fuels that could feed wildfires. District staff can assist land owners prepare plans and choose the right tools, such as prescribed fire, to manage land within conservation easements.

A wildfire risk reduction plan is a tool that can assist property owners in maintaining conservation easements in a condition that both protects the land’s natural environmental value and nearby structures.

Staff at the St. Johns River Water Management District can assist the public with wildfire risk reduction plans for property over which the district holds a conservation easement that was conveyed to the district solely for mitigation or to meet other regulatory requirements of the district or other agencies (such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers).

These conservation easements were proposed by the permit applicant as part of their application for an environmental resource permit (ERP) or other type of permit. Their purpose is to off-set a permitted project’s adverse impacts to wetlands and other surface waters by preserving, and thus protecting, in perpetuity other wetland and/or upland areas. Preservation — sometimes in conjunction with enhancement or restoration activities — is the most common form of mitigation that permit applicants propose to obtain an ERP from the district.

Undergrowth that could fuel a wildfire is within 60 feet of the home in this photo taken in April 2013.
In July 2013, undergrowth was trimmed away from the home to reduce the wildfire risk.
By October 2013, some vegetation had begun to regrow.

Because these conservation easements serve to off-set adverse impacts, wildfire risk reduction plans for lands within these easements may differ from plans prepared for, or approved by, other agencies. The district’s interest in measures to protect these lands from potential wildfires is balanced with what is best to maintain and protect the plant and animal species and the natural habitat within the conservation easements.

To reduce the potential for wildfires, public and private land managers have a variety of tools. Management techniques include prescribed fire or mechanical measures (for example, roller chopping) to reduce fuel loads, thereby reducing the potential for wildfire. Which tool is appropriate depends on factors such as the conditions, habitat type and location of the property. District staff can assist in developing plans and identifying tools that are suitable for various natural plant and habitat types and that are consistent with the purpose of these conservation easements and reduce the risk from potential wildfires.

District staff strongly encourage permit applicants to consider the risk of potential wildfires when designing their development project, including their ERP mitigation plan. An ERP mitigation plan may propose suitable management measures that can sustain the ecosystems and reduce the risk of wildfire as well as addressing topics such as invasive or exotic species. District staff are available to discuss such measures during the pre-application and design review meetings.

Wildfire risk reduction plans may also be proposed within conservation easements that have already been conveyed to the district. Property owners who wish to propose measures within existing easements should consult district staff to prepare a site-specific plan and obtain written approval prior to any management activity to ensure that the activities are not contrary to the conservation easement. In this instance, there are two tools to assist landowners with easements to reduce wildfire risk: (1) interface wildfire risk reduction plan and (2) vegetation management plan.

An interface wildfire risk reduction plan is typically limited to the portions of a conservation easement that are within 60 feet of an occupied building. These types of plans are focused primarily on reducing wildfire risks to occupied structures without compromising the natural resource benefits the easement provides. The approved plan will provide details on the type of activity allowed and the frequency that the management activity may be conducted, as well as the expiration date of the plan.

Vegetation management plans address those portions of an easement that extend beyond 60 feet from an occupied dwelling. A vegetation management plan is intended to sustain the preserved ecosystem while also offering a reduction in wildfire risk.

Other reference sources to prepare a wildfire risk reduction plan include the Florida Forest Service’s (FFS) web page for firewise communities and FFS’s general wildfire information page.

With the implementation of the statewide environmental resource permitting program on Oct. 1, 2013, standard conservation easement forms were adopted by rule. These forms allow for the development of wildfire risk reduction plans subject to district approval.

Solely to assist those interested in obtaining approval of a wildfire risk reduction plan, the district is making available sample wildfire risk reduction plan templates. District staff will work with landowners to complete the templates. Sample templates are available for interface areas (those areas generally within 60 feet of an occupied structure). Sample templates of proposed management techniques are also available for vegetation management plans.

Generally, when wildfire risk reduction activities are proposed within an existing conservation easement, the district’s wildfire risk reduction plan evaluation process will include the following steps:

  • A property owner contacts the district with a request to conduct wildfire risk reduction activities.
  • Staff members review the request, confirm that the area to be treated is within a conservation easement conveyed to the district, and provide the property owner with a wildfire risk reduction template. The plan may be developed in consultation with a county forester and/or district staff.
  • Once a plan is developed, the property owner submits the completed plan (template) to the district with the necessary attachments, such as maps of the project area.
  • District staff review the plan and conduct a site visit.
    • If the plan is appropriate and does not compromise the ecological value of the conservation easement area, district staff send a letter outlining the terms and conditions for implementation of the wildfire risk reduction plan.
    • If staff determine the proposed plan will reduce the ecological value of the conservation easement, district staff will work with the property owner to revise the plan. If the property owner does not wish to revise the plan, district staff would send a letter advising the property owner that a release/amendment of the conservation easement in accordance with district rules would need to be obtained before the proposed activities could proceed.

For additional information

Please contact the district’s Division of Regulatory Services at 386-329‑4570.

Frequently asked questions

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.

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 Bureau of Real Estate Services at 386-329-4335.

For questions about easements donated as mitigation, contact the district’s Division of Regulatory, Engineering and Environmental Services at 386-329-4570.