Letter: Easements can protect farms

In last week’s Rappahannock News, Mike Massie suggested conservation easements could bring an end to farming and hunting in Rappahannock [March 4, What’s conserved, and what’s not guaranteed, by easements]. The article raised some interesting points, but there are many benefits of conservation easements that were not mentioned and I would like to point out some of those to our county’s farmers and to all readers of the Rappahannock News.

The term “conservation easement” encompasses many different types of land protection. A landowner may wish to protect farmland, scenic land, forested land (working or old-growth), wetlands, historic structures, wildlife habitat or, frequently, some combination. The most important thing to note is the landowner decides what values will be protected under the easement.

A land trust (which may be a private entity or a government agency) will have certain standards that must be met for the easements they will accept, but ultimately the landowner drafts the terms of the agreement and makes the final decision.

In exchange for the easement donation, the landowner can receive state and federal tax benefits, including income tax benefits and estate tax benefits. The estate tax benefit is often the most important advantage for family farms, ensuring that the land can remain in the family and remain in production. (Of course the descendants can sell the farm if they wish, but it is much less likely that they will be forced to sell. A forced sale will often end in non-agricultural development, which is a loss to our county and to the local farming community.)

The process of donating a conservation easement is lengthy, complex and is not to be taken lightly. When considering a conservation easement, a farmer needs to think about how the land may be used in the future, and not just in the next decade, but far into the future.

This is a difficult task, but it does not mean that the farmer must foresee every potential change in land use and agricultural innovation – an easement document is written with a certain degree of flexibility and often allows for appropriate development.
As such, the farmer needs to consider how the farm may grow and how much it should grow. And, if something unexpected were to occur (for instance, an unlikely ban on foxhunting), an easement amendment may be considered by the land trust, so long as the amendment does not decrease the conservation value of the land.

While it is true that a conservation easement may not fit every farmer’s situation, it is wrong to dismiss them for all farmers. In fact, there are many farmers in Rappahannock that are benefitting from conservation easements. If you are interested in talking to one of these farmers or are interested in further information about conservation easements and the land trusts that serve Rappahannock, or information on our county’s Farmland Preservation Program, please contact the Rappahannock County Conservation Alliance (RCCA) at info@rccava.org or by phone at 540-987-9118.

RCCA is not a land trust. We are a non-profit organization that exclusively serves the needs of our county, advocating for agricultural and other appropriate conservation easements. RCCA is also the largest private contributor to the county’s Farmland Preservation Program. Further information is available on our website (www.rccava.org).

Nathan Jenkins
Executive Director
Rappahannock County Conservation Alliance

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