The ins and outs of Conservation Easements

In Properties, Uncategorized by couchiching

As many readers know, the Couchiching Conservancy is a land trust organization. But what does “land trust” really mean? Do we keep people out of these special places? Do we buy, sell and trade land? How long are we required to look after a particular parcel of land? When it comes to real estate, there are many questions that need to be asked, and answered, before decisions are made.

Basically, we ensure parcels of land are protected from harmful development while ensuring the special ecological values of those parcels are managed and maintained to our best abilities. But it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Any property we work with is called conservation land, and when we become involved, it is “forever.” Some say 999 years is forever; others say forever is just that, for ever and ever. No matter the definition, it is a long-term commitment to ensure current and future generations will know some places will remain just as special as they are now.

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The Couchiching Conservancy land trust is involved with land protection in three ways: We own the land, we partner with other organizations (for example, Ontario Parks, Nature Conservancy of Canada, Ontario Heritage Trust) to acquire and manage the land, or we work with private landowners to protect their land using a conservation easement.

The land we own has come into our care either by a fee-simple purchase (usually with a fundraising effort) or via a donation from a person or family who wishes the land to be properly cared for in years to come. Our landholdings make these parcels private, just as with any other landowner. However, our mandate includes education and, therefore, access to many properties is opened to the public via a series of walking trails. (Grant’s Woods is perhaps the best-known site for this.)

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Forever is indeed a long time,

and we will follow our mandate

of being entrusted with the

care of ecologically sensitive land.

We depend on the financial

contributions of our members

and supporters to do this work,

since we are a charitable,

non-profit organization.

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Should landowners wish to retain title to their land yet ensure it will always be treated with respect and cared for in an environmental manner, there is the option of a conservation easement. This is a legally binding agreement that is attached to the deed, which states any future titleholder of that parcel must adhere to certain restrictions of use.

Working with the landowner, we create an agreement that protects the property, seeing that the conservation easement is worthwhile financially and ecologically. It takes about two years to put an easement in place. During that time, a series of site visits are conducted to create a baseline documentation report, which summarizes the special aspects of the property, such as the presence of species at risk, role in the local watershed, threats to continued ecological values, and so on.

From our side of the fence, we have to decide if investing hundreds of hours of staff time, as well as a goodly portion of money, will result in a strategically preserved parcel of land. On your side of the fence, you must discuss this option fully with all family members, seek independent legal advice and realize the real-estate value of your property will diminish, due to the development restrictions that will be created.

Sometimes we walk away from the pending deal; sometimes the landowner does. And that’s a good thing, as everyone has to buy into the concept long-term protection is the best option for a particular piece of land. When we all agree a conservation easement will work, we all proceed with great enthusiasm.

Once an easement is completed and has been attached to the deed, every future landowner must be aware of the easement (prior to buying) and agree to follow the rules. At least once a year, a representative of the Couchiching Conservancy will visit the property to work with the landowner to ensure the restrictions are not being contravened.

Forever is indeed a long time, and we will follow our mandate of being entrusted with the care of ecologically sensitive land. We depend on the financial contributions of our members and supporters to do this work, since we are a charitable, non-profit organization.

As the stewardship program manager, I am both privileged and honoured to be the current lead caretaker of the 44 parcels (12,500 acres) we are involved in protecting. The staff team is nothing less than awesome, our supporters and volunteers are very, incredibly special, and our board is a collection of inspirational leaders.

If you would like to discuss options about conservation easements, please contact Mark Bisset, our executive director, at 705-326-1620.

Written by David Hawke, Stewardship Program Manager.