Save Your Land

Want to protect your unique corner of Jefferson County for generations to come? Find out how!

What are the benefits of working with a land trust to protect my land?

A conservation easement is one tool land trusts use to protect land. Donating or selling a conservation easement on your land is an effective and practical way to share the beauty of wild places with future generations, keep farmland in production and protect important wildlife habitat from development. When you protect your land, or even just a portion of it through a conservation easement, you can continue living on it and generating income throughout your life, and you may also reap the benefit of lower income taxes and estate taxes.

Doing nothing to protect your land, however, leaves it vulnerable to development. Why? With federal estate taxes as high as 55% of a property’s fair market value, heirs may be forced to sell the land just to pay the tax bill. And of course, future owners may be compelled by ever-increasing property values — or simply a lack of appreciation for the land — to sell it for development.

Jefferson Land Trust helps landowners protect their land forever, through conservation easements, outright gifts of land or other arrangements.

Here’s how it works:

A conservation easement is a voluntary legal agreement between a landowner and a protecting organization, like a land trust, that permanently protects land while the landowner continues to own it. Conservation easements are most often donated to non-profit nature conservancy organizations, such as Jefferson Land Trust, or to a governmental agency.

A conservation easement places restrictions on how a parcel of land can be used. This creates a permanent safeguard against your land being used in a way that could damage or destroy its ecological, scenic, recreational or resource value. Jefferson Land Trust is legally bound to uphold these restrictions, ensuring the special characteristics of your land are preserved forever. Characteristics we protect include rich farm soils and timberland, critical wildlife habitat, and forests and wetlands that provide clean air and water and scenic and recreational open spaces.

Every conservation easement is tailored to the particular needs and wishes of the landowner, the natural characteristics of the land and the conservation objectives of Jefferson Land Trust. Therefore, the land must meet certain criteria for it to be considered for protection.

Jefferson Land Trust takes its stewardship role seriously. Once we accept a conservation easement, we must protect that land forever, “in perpetuity”. This requires a significant commitment of financial and human resources, but it is a promise that can never be ignored or broken. Therefore, the members of Jefferson Land Trust’s Board of Directors must carefully evaluate whether a proposed conservation easement meets our conservation goals and whether we have the resources and capacity to protect the land over the long term.

Our conservation goals are broad enough to include many different kinds of lands, but they must meet certain criteria. In order for a parcel of land to qualify for a conservation easement, it must have one or more of the following characteristics:

  • Is the land habitat for endangered, threatened or rare species?
  • Does it contain exemplary natural ecosystems, such as old growth forests or migratory waterfowl staging and/or wintering areas?
  • Is it valuable for timber or agricultural production?
  • Does it include shoreline and riparian areas?
  • Does it include wetlands, floodplains or other lands important for the protection of water quality?
  • Does it include parcels that could be connected to, or from, greenbelt corridors between privately protected or publicly held properties?
  • Does it include unique scenic viewpoints or outstanding physiographic features (for example, distinct outcroppings, waterfalls or bluffs) that help define the character of our locale and enhance our community’s sense of place?
  • Is it a heritage site of historic and/or prehistoric importance?
  • Does it include ecosystems of educational or scientific value?

In addition to satisfying the above criteria, we must be confident that we can adequately steward every property or conservation easement we accept. Some important questions we ask include:

  • Is the land currently protected?
  • Could another organization protect the property better?
  • Can an enforceable management plan be developed?
  • Do legal restrictions prevent us from accepting the land donation?
  • Can a public outreach campaign be developed to promote the land?
  • Can we protect the property in perpetuity?
  • Is a funding source in place to support ongoing monitoring?

Under Washington State law (RCW 64.04.130), a conservation easement may be held by a non-profit nature conservancy corporation or by a federal, state or local government.

Jefferson Land Trust, which was incorporated by local residents in 1989, meets all of the qualifications of this Washington law, as well as those imposed by federal law, to qualify as a tax-exempt charitable institution under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.

No. Only if you specify public access as a permitted use of the land.

A landowner may allow limited access to their land for educational or scientific purposes, but public access is not required by Jefferson Land Trust as a condition of accepting a conservation easement. However, the Land Trust is obligated to visit the site every year to assure the terms of the conservation easement are being honored.

Yes. Land protected by a conservation easement may be sold, bequeathed or otherwise transferred at any time. However, transferring ownership will not affect the integrity or enforcement of the conservation easement. The restrictions defined in the conservation easement are tied to the land title forever.

Since an easement may only apply to certain portions of a property, for example, to preserving open or wooded areas, the rest of the land can be developed. Ownership of the portion of land protected by the conservation easement may be divided for limited or cluster development if the granting landowner deems this appropriate.

When a conservation easement is created, a representative from Jefferson Land Trust, working with the landowner, takes photos of the property and conducts plant and wildlife inventories to provide a baseline for future monitoring. A Land Trust representative then makes annual visits to ensure the terms and conditions of the conservation easement are being complied with.

If a violation is identified, the landowner is promptly notified (in accordance with procedures outlined in the conservation easement) and steps must be taken to repair any damage. The easement outlines the process to be followed if there is a dispute regarding the alleged violation. If necessary, the Land Trust will take legal action to fulfill its obligations under the conservation easement.

  • Income Taxes:
 Federal income tax benefits vary with each conservation easement. For your donation to qualify as a charitable gift, which may be deductible from federal income tax, development rights must be granted in perpetuity to a qualified conservation organization, such as Jefferson Land Trust. The value of the gift, which is determined by a formal appraisal, is calculated as the difference between the fair market value of the property before and after the donation of the conservation easement. To be deductible, an easement must serve conservation purposes by preserving natural habitat, historic sites, unique scenic landscapes, wildlife corridors or connections to other protected parcels, areas of concern for public education or recreation, or open spaces in the vicinity of intense land development. In general, maximum allowable deductions are from conservation easements that cover large tracts of open space in areas where development pressures are intense.
  • Estate Taxes: Many heirs to large historic estates or tracts of open space — farms, ranches and timberland in particular — face substantial estate taxes. Even if heirs want to keep the inherited property in its undeveloped condition, the federal estate tax is levied not on the current use value of the property, but on its “highest and best use”, or the amount a developer or speculator would pay. The resulting estate tax can be so high that heirs are often forced to sell some or all of the land just to pay these taxes.However, a conservation easement can reduce the amount of estate taxes owed because the donation of the easement reduces the value of the property. This enables your heirs to keep property that may otherwise have to be sold. The easement can be devised (donated) as part of a will, and then deducted from the taxable estate. The gift of a qualified easement usually must be included within the donor’s will to ensure the tax savings. However, changes to the tax code through the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997 may allow heirs to place easements on the property during the probate period.
  • Gift Taxes:
 When a gift of land is made to a family member or other person, it is subject to federal gift taxes if its value exceeds the maximum tax-free amount. A reduction in the value of the property through a conservation easement may allow a landowner to give more land in any one year without creating a gift tax obligation, or it may help reduce the amount of gift tax owed.
  • Property Taxes:
 Under Washington property tax law, land subject to a conservation easement can qualify for a reduction in assessed valuation. Jefferson County has adopted a public benefit rating system that it uses to determine the percentage of the reduction. Points are assigned to various environmental factors that have been determined to be of value to the public. A minimum number of points must be accumulated to receive a reduction in assessed valuation. Conservation easements receive 6 points on a scale of 1 to 12, although special attributes of the property may result in further reductions. The maximum possible reduction is 90% of the assessed value.

Selling land to Jefferson Land Trust at less than its fair market value can make it both affordable for us and provide tax benefits for you.

Yes. Gifts to Jefferson Land Trust can help protect some of our area’s most beautiful lands while providing tax benefits to the donor. Below is a summary of tax-saving gift arrangements and ideas you may want to consider in your financial and estate plans.

Tax laws change. Professional financial counsel is essential since each donor’s tax situation is unique. You should consult your attorney or tax planner for more complete details.

  • Outright Gifts:
 Cash gifts are the simplest way to get a tax deduction while also supporting Jefferson Land Trust. However, donations of other assets, such as real estate, securities, closely held stock or life insurance, may be more appropriate to your situation.
 Real estate that meets our acquisition criteria will be protected in its natural state or according to terms and conditions outlined in a conservation easement. Other donated real estate, such as homes, vacant lots or commercial and industrial properties, may be sold (with development restrictions, if appropriate), with the proceeds contributed to Jefferson Land Trust. Gifts of appreciated real estate held long-term may entitle you to an income tax deduction for its full fair market value, subject to certain limitations.
  • Limits on Deductions:
 Taxpayers cannot eliminate all of their taxable income by making charitable donations, no matter how large the donation. In general, the deduction for charitable donations of appreciated property cannot exceed 30% of the taxpayer’s adjusted gross income, although any excess amount may be carried forward and deducted over five succeeding years. Under some circumstances, the donor may be subject to the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT). An accountant or tax lawyer can determine whether the AMT would apply to your situation.

Need more information?

Some of the information provided here was excerpted from The Conservation Easement Handbook: Managing Land Conservation and Historic Preservation Easement Programs, by Janet Diehl and Thomas S. Barrett.

Another excellent resource is Preserving Family Lands: A Landowner’s Introduction to Tax Issues and Other Considerations, by Stephen J. Small.

Both of these books are available from Jefferson Land Trust.

Title 84RCW 36.260-64 and WA458-16-290 (Revised Code of Washington) provide guidance on Washington property tax exemptions. Information about the public benefits rating system is available from Jefferson County, which reviews open space applications within the county. Find out if you qualify.

Since the transfer of property is a legal process, an attorney represents Jefferson Land Trust in these transactions. Donors must rely on their own attorneys, appraisers and tax specialists to ensure they receive personal and objective representation during negotiations and the appropriate benefit from the transfer.

For more information, please contact us. Your inquiry will be treated as confidential and without further obligation.