Written by Joan Youngman, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy
Conservation restrictions are the most significant and fastest-growing means of protecting environmentally sensitive land, and Massachusettshas been a leader in their development. It is 44th among states in terms of land area, but 10th in terms of acres preserved for conservation. It has more land trusts than any other state except California, and it was the first state in the nation to amend its statutes to recognize this new property right.Its pioneering legislation described this as a, “conservation restriction.” Later states and a model federal Uniform Act have called this same instrument a, “conservation easement.”
A conservation easement limits future development by transferring some rights in property, such as the right to construct new buildings, from the landowner to a nonprofit organization or a governmental entity for conservation purposes. Conservation easements are enormously popular because they are the only means of permanently restricting development while allowing property to remain in private ownership. This has a number of important advantages over a completely public model of preservation, where a government agency or conservation organization might purchase property outright in order to maintain it as open space. Many owners who care deeply for their land do not want to sell it and move away but may be pleased to donate or sell the development rights to insure that their property is protected in the future. These owners may well be better able to maintain the property than hard-pressed public agencies or nonprofit organizations. Owners who cannot afford to donate the development rights may offer them for sale, which would be less costly to the conservation organization acquiring the rights than a purchase of the entire property. Continued private ownership generally also means that some portion of the property value will remain on the local tax rolls.
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