NC State Extension Publications

 

Landowners share a deep connection to their land and the legacy they’ll leave behind. With many land management options to consider, landowners need to have a working knowledge of the choices to protect their land in the near and long term. Landowners should identify their goals before embarking upon a conservation strategy. Once a conservation strategy is selected, then the implications of state and federal assistance programs can be explored. This publication reviews the most common federal and state-level land conservation and protection assistance programs available for landowners.

All landowners have a unique relationship with their land. Some choose to protect their land from future development. The challenge is to find the option that best fits with each landowner’s primary objective of owning land. Determining the best fit requires due diligence, expert advice, and a thorough analysis of the benefits and costs associated with each conservation choice.

Conservation options are voluntary, and landowners who practice due diligence are most apt to be satisfied. Once individual and family needs are identified, circumstance will determine the appropriate conservation strategy. The landowner, in concert with family members, must establish a cooperative partnership with a conservation entity. The conservation partner (private or public) must live on in time to ensure that conservation goals can be protected beyond the lifetime of current owners.

This publication describes temporary options, term-limited protection options, and permanent options to help landowners determine which techniques are appropriate for their particular situation. This approach may mirror the gradual transition that many landowners have taken to ensure current and future management or protection of their lands.

To begin, take the time to discuss, develop, and document the following items:

  • Land management and conservation goals
  • Family’s needs and desires
  • Unique features of your land
  • Financial and tax situation
  • Uncertainties that need further clarification or study

Selecting a conservation strategy will depend not only on your vision for the land, but on its notable features. Many programs exist to protect specific public benefits like water quality and rare habitat. Priority is placed on unique resources or habitat, threatened and endangered species, proximity to other protected land, and other conservation benefits derived from the protection of a given parcel. Landowners wishing to protect working lands such as farms, woodlands, or homesteads may have greater competition, longer waiting time, or fewer compensation options available than those landowners with unique habitat or water resources. Options are available for landowners wishing to protect working lands like farms or managed forests, as well as those targeting protection of unique habitat or water resources.

Temporary Conservation Options

State and federal law authorizes numerous programs for protecting farmland and conserving natural resources. Many conservation programs are implemented by federal, state, or local government agencies; soil and water conservation districts; and non-governmental non-profit land trusts or conservancies.

Present Use Value Program (PUV)

The PUV provides a property tax break by allowing agricultural, forestry, and horticultural land to be taxed at its present use value or current use, rather than at higher market or development value. Enrolling in PUV is the first step a landowner should consider to maintain economic viability. Land enrolled in the PUV must meet specific ownership, acreage, income, production, and management requirements. If land is removed from the program, the landowner must pay three years of deferred tax plus interest and the current year taxes in full. PUV is not automatic, and landowners must actively apply to their county tax department to enroll. Applications for PUV are normally accepted during the January listing period or shortly after land transfer or revaluation. Your county tax office can provide applications, information, and deadlines for PUV enrollment.

The Wildlife Conservation Land Program (WCLP)

The WCLP is a new program, modeled after PUV, which allows landowners who have owned their property for at least five years and want to manage for protected wildlife species or priority wildlife habitats to apply for a reduced property tax assessment. Eligible land must be managed under a written Wildlife Habitat Conservation (WHC) agreement with NC Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC). The WHC agreement must document the presence of a protected wildlife species or the existence of one or more of the priority habitats and describe the management strategies and their appropriate timelines to ensure the continued existence of the protected species, the priority habitat, or both. Further details are available from NCWRC Director’s office at 919-707-0010 or in the WCLP guide.

Voluntary Agricultural District Program (VAD)

Locally established VADs provide agricultural and forest landowners with incentives to limit non-farm development. Implemented through county ordinances, landowners enrolling in a VAD receive a locally determined set of benefits in exchange for voluntarily restricting non-farm development on their land for a 10-year period. More than three quarters of North Carolina’s 100 counties and two municipalities have passed farmland preservation ordinances establishing VADs. An agricultural advisory board appointed by the county commissioners administers the VAD program locally. The local VAD ordinance determines eligibility and guidelines for enrollment, selecting the incentives and the restrictions that are most appropriate for local conditions. Land may be withdrawn from the program at any time. Local government programs differ, but many offer some combination of public hearings on condemnation of forest or farmland, notice of proximity to a VAD protection area, and waiver of water and sewer assessment. For details on VAD in your county, contact the local N.C. Cooperative Extension or soil and water conservation district office.

Enhanced Voluntary Agricultural Districts (EVAD)

A county or a municipality may adopt an ordinance establishing an EVAD. An EVAD may provide these benefits beyond a VAD:

  1. Eligibility to receive the higher percentage of cost-share funds for the benefit of that farmland under the Agriculture Cost Share Program beyond that available in a voluntary agricultural district.
  2. Priority consideration by state departments, institutions, or agencies that award grants to any person who farms land that is subject to a conservation agreement.
  3. Waiver of assessments for utilities (held in abeyance, with or without interest, effective until improvements on the farmland property are connected to the utility) for farmland subject to a conservation agreement.
  4. Enrolled farmers may receive up to 25 percent of gross sales of nonfarm products and still qualify as a bona fide farm that is exempt from zoning regulations under G.S. 153A‑340(b).

EVADs require conservation agreements that are irrevocable for a period of at least 10 years from the date the agreement is executed. At the end of its term, a conservation agreement shall automatically renew for three years, unless notice of termination is given in a timely manner by either party as prescribed in the ordinance establishing the EVAD. The EVAD benefits are available to the forest or farmland under a conservation agreement for the duration of that agreement.

Term-Limited Conservation Agreements and Easements

Many state and federal programs offer temporary or term-limited conservation protection. Term agreements and conservation contracts vary in scope, scale, payments, and responsibility depending upon their purpose and the duration of the agreement. While many programs are similar to traditional cost-share assistance, this group of programs tends to require a lengthier contract or agreement. Often program benefits are enhanced as the length of the agreement is increased. Term agreements offer an opportunity to test the waters prior to committing to a permanent conservation agreement and can provide an infusion of resources to transition from farming to forestry or toward a favorable land use that meets landowner goals.

Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP)

The 2014 Agricultural Act established ACEP under the management of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). ACEP provides financial and technical assistance to landowners to conserve agricultural lands and wetlands as well as their related benefits. The program provides funding to eligible partners for purchase of short-term and long-term conservation easements for agricultural lands and wetlands.

ACEP combined the objectives of and repealed the Wetland Reserve Program, Farm and Ranchland Protection Program, and the Grassland Reserve Program. Contracts, agreements, or easements entered into prior to the date of enactment or any associated payments are required to be made in connection with existing contracts, agreements or easements. For more information visit the ACEP web page.

Agricultural Development and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund (ADFPTF)

The purpose of the ADFPTF is to support the farming, forestry, and horticultural communities by funding term and perpetual agricultural conservation agreements (including transaction costs). The ADFPTF targets the active production of food, fiber, and other agricultural products.

The program will help fund or develop term agreements (10-50 years) and perpetual easements via a competitive grant process. Contact the ADFPTF for details at 919-707-3071, via e-mail: ncadfp@ncagr.gov or visit the ADFPTF web page.

Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP)

The CREP is a program utilizing federal and state resources to achieve long-term protection of environmentally sensitive cropland and marginal pastureland. CREP voluntary protection measures are accomplished through 10-, 15-, 30-year, and permanent conservation easements.

CREP encourages farmers to place environmentally sensitive land near streams or other approved water bodies into a vegetative cover for a period of time or permanently. In return, landowners receive annual payments and are reimbursed for establishing the conservation practices, such as grassed filter strips, forested riparian buffers, hardwood tree establishment, and wetland restoration. Landowners in the Neuse, Tar-Pamlico, Chowan, Lumber, White Oak, Yadkin-PeeDee, Cape Fear (including Jordan Lake), Roanoke, and Pasquotank river basins can take advantage of CREP.

Enrollment and program eligibility details about CREP are available from your local USDA, Farm Service Agency office or online at: on the CREP web page.

Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)

The CRP is a private lands environmental improvement program aimed at enrolling environmentally sensitive acreages in conservation practices to reduce soil erosion, improve water and soil quality, and provide wildlife habitat on cropland and marginal pastureland. Eligible landowners enter into 10- to 15-year contracts that provide an annual rental payment and reimburse the cost of establishing permanent cover. Enrollment practices vary but have included longleaf pine, forested riparian buffers, wetland restoration, and bottomland hardwood establishment.

Enrollment and program eligibility details about CRP are available from your local USDA, Farm Service Agency office, or on the CRP web page.

Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP)

The EQIP is an agricultural production and environmental conservation program, which provides financial and technical assistance for installing practices on eligible agricultural and forest land. EQIP contracts may fund forest management practices such as forest stand improvement, fire breaks installation, prescribed burning, restoration and management of declining forest habitats, and tree establishment. EQIP pays a flat payment for practice installation based on 75 percent (or more for historically underserved groups) of the average costs of conservation practices. EQIP activities must be carried out according to a comprehensive management plan approved by a Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) agent in your conservation district. The NRCS evaluates applications and gives high priorities to applicants that utilize cost-effective practices, that address national conservation priorities, and that optimize environmental benefits.

Portions of the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP) were rolled into EQIP. The NRCS will continue to support existing active WHIP contracts entered prior to passage of the Agricultural Act of 2014. Enrollment and program eligibility details about EQIP are available from your local USDA, Natural Resources Conservation Service office. For more information, contact the Assistant State Conservationist for Programs at 919-873-2104, or visit the EQIP web page.

Permanent Conservation and Land Protection Options

Permanent protection options revolve around the donation, outright sale, or a combination (bargain) sale of a whole property or certain rights to a qualified conservation group or public agency. Outright sales are less appealing to individuals whose goal is to protect aspects of ownership without divesting themselves or their heirs of certain ownership rights. Donation may not be an option for cash-strapped landowners, whereas a bargain sale might be just right for many landowners. Perpetual conservation easements or agreements allow landowners to transfer some property rights while retaining ownership and continued use of their land.

A conservation easement is a legal document that restricts certain property rights to protect specific conservation values of the property. It involves a legal, enforceable separation of certain land rights between a landowner (grantor) and a qualified conservation organization or public agency (grantee). The easement is a recorded deed restriction that runs with the land title. The grantor maintains the property according to the conservation stipulations, and the grantee monitors the property and enforces easement requirements if necessary. A conservation easement is a legal agreement and a partnership that transcends individual owner interest, and it is the most common tool for permanently protecting private property. Permanent conservation easements should be entered with the knowledge and expectation that although voluntary, they are irrevocable once legally registered. Thus, due diligence and comprehensive study of future management and tax implications is warranted.

Permanent conservation easements provide several key benefits:

  • Permanent protection applies to current and future landowners.
  • Restrictions are enforced by a qualified conservation entity in perpetuity.
  • Ownership is retained, except for the rights that are extinguished (held in abeyance) by the conservation entity.
  • Easements can significantly lower property and estate taxes.
  • Easements provide certainty and set future land use.

A conservation easement describes property restrictions, typically commercial or industrial development, subdivision of the property, mineral excavation, protection of water resources, construction of roadways, and other activities that will threaten the conservation purposes of the easement. A conservation easement extinguishes certain rights, while ensuring the remaining rights are retained by the current and future landowners. Working land easements protect property for agricultural and forestry purposes, including preservation of wildlife habitat, typically through reliance on a separate agricultural or forestry management plan that can be updated regularly.

Do your homework! Each conservation easement is a complex legal instrument that outlives its initiators. It is critical to learn all about its purpose, language, and the potential tax and estate benefits that it offers. Begin with a careful study of qualifying conservation entity requirements. Talk with fellow landowners who have already entered into conservation agreements with the land trusts, agencies, or other entity that you are considering. Ask about flexibility, time considerations, negotiation, and willingness to consider landowner requests. Understand that prior to finalizing a conservation easement, lengthy discussions between the landowner (heirs) and the easement holder are needed to ensure that the document meets the needs of both parties. Both parties need to seek separate legal and financial counsel. If tax benefits are anticipated, donors seeking those benefits will need to hire a qualified appraiser to document the value of their full or partial donation.

Donate or Sell a Conservation Easement?

A grantor has several compensation options for placing a conservation easement on their property. Most landowners find that full price cash sales may not be available, nor will they always yield the highest net return because of opportunities for tax credits, deductions, and future income/estate tax liability associated with a full or partial donation. Because each situation is unique, there are a number of options for deriving maximum benefit while placing an easement on your property or selling to a conservation buyer:

  • Sale of full value of the development rights
  • Bargain sale for less than the full development value
  • Donation for state and federal tax benefits
  • Combination bargain sale and partial donation
  • Federal tax deduction and state tax credit with no direct financial compensation
  • Sale of land to the government; non-profit land trust or other conservation buyer
  • Donation with lifetime income
  • Donation of an easement by will (post-mortem election)

Tax Benefits

A grantor can apply for tax incentives only on the donated portion of an easement. It is up to the grantor and grantee to find the best solution for all parties involved. It is the responsibility of the grantor to use an independent appraiser to determine the value of the conservation easement. The value of an easement is typically determined through a before-and-after appraisal. The appraiser estimates the full fair market value of the property in its current state (unencumbered by an easement), then reviews the proposed easement language and estimates the value of the land once subject to that easement. The difference between the “before” and “after” is the value of the conservation easement.

Federal Tax Code Information

The Federal government allows an income tax deduction for the full fair market value of a perpetual easement donated to a qualifying holder (see IRS Code 170 (h)). A “qualified conservation contribution” is defined in the Internal Revenue Service Code (IRS) as a contribution of a qualified real property interest to a qualified organization exclusively for conservation purposes. If you want to make sure your project qualifies for deductions, you can request a private letter ruling and the IRS will determine if the project meets qualifications. Keep in mind that the private letter ruling will not inform you of the amount of tax deductions you may receive, but only whether your project qualifies.

Additional Permanent Land Conservation Options

The Agricultural Development and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund (ADFPTF), Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), and Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) can all be permanent land conservation options as well as temporary. For more information on these programs, refer to program descriptions above under the Temporary Conservation Options section.

Federal Funding for Permanent Land Conservation

Forest Legacy Program (FLP)

A federal program that supports state efforts to protect privately owned forestland by funding acquisition of conservation easements specifically targeting working forests. Most FLP conservation easements restrict development, require sustainable forestry practices, and protect other values. Visit the FLP web page for more information.

Summary

Landowners desiring to protect their lands from future development and unwanted land-use change have many temporary and permanent options to pursue. A successful strategy starts with identifying clear goals and envisioning a desired future condition that suits their needs and those of their heirs. There are many beneficial programs that yield temporary tax relief and income potential. As needs change and goals solidify, landowners may opt to pursue permanent protection for the compensation, estate, and tax benefits that they provide. In every land conservation effort, involvement and assistance from experienced professionals and other landowners is encouraged. Due diligence and dedicated relationship building with potential future partners is encouraged, and its value cannot be overstated. For more detailed information please contact the agencies, program coordinators found within this publication, local land trusts in your area, or delve into the resources listed below:

Program

Purpose

Contact Info

Term-limited

Permanent

Present Use Value Deferred Tax Program (PUV)

Defer land taxes for farm and forest use

Visit the AV-4 Present Use Value General Statues for more information.

X

Wildlife Conservation Land Program (WCLP)

Protect wildlife species
and priority habitat

NC Wildlife Resources Commission Director's Office, 919-707-0010.
More information can be found in the WCLP guide.

X

Voluntary Agricultural District

(VAD)

Encourage the preservation of farm and forest

NC Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, 919-707-3000. More information can be found on the VAD web page.

X

Enhanced Voluntary Agricultural District (EVAD)

Encourage the preservation of farm and forest

NC Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, 919-707-3000. More information can be found in the Enhanced Farmland Protection for North Carolina Landowners brochure.

X

Agricultural Conservation Easement Program

(ACEP)

Conserve agricultural lands and wetlands through easements

More information can be found on the ACEP web page.

X

X

Agricultural Development and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund

(ADFPTF)

Ag/Hort. and forestry
conservation agreements

NC Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services, 919-707-3000. More information can be found on the ADFPTF web page.

X

X

Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP)

Retire cropland to protect environmentally sensitive land

Contact your local Natural Resources Conservation Service, Farm Services Agency, or Soil and Water Conservation District. More information can be found on the CREP web page.

X

X

Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)

Convert highly erodible cropland to vegetative cover

Contact your local Natural Resources Conservation Service, Farm Services Agency, or Soil and Water Conservation District Office. More information can be found on the CRP web page.

X

Environmental Quality Incentive Program

(EQIP)

Reduce non-point pollution / emissions, conserve water and habitat, and reduce erosion

NC Assistant State Conservationist for Programs 919-873-2104. More information can be found on the EQIP web page.

X

North Carolina Clean Water Management Trust Fund (CWMTF)

Wastewater improvements, riparian buffer protection/restoration, stormwater run-off projects, watershed planning and land acquisition in critical watershed areas

More information about the CWMTF can be found on the CWMTF web page.

X

North Carolina Natural Heritage Trust Fund (NHTF)

Acquire lands with significant natural heritage value

More information about the NHTF can be found on the NHTF web page.

X

North Carolina Parks and Recreation Trust Fund (PARTF)

Fund improvements in state parks, fund grants for local government, and increase public access to the state’s beaches

More information about PARTF can be found on the PARTF web page.

X

Division of Mitigation Services (DMS) [Formally Ecosystem Enhancement Program]

Protect wetlands and streams statewide, acquire riparian buffers and fund wetland and stream restoration

Departments of Transportation and of Environmental Quality. More information can be found on the Division of Mitigation Services web page.

X

Forest Legacy Program (FLP)

Protects privately owned forest-land through acquisition of conservation easements

USDA Forest Service administers the FLP in cooperation with state partners. The USDA Forest Service can be reached at 202-205-8333. More information can be found on the FLP web page.

X

Authors

Extension Forestry Specialist
Forestry & Environmental Resources
Graduate Student
Forestry & Environmental Resources
Assistant Professor and Extension Specialist, Forest Economics
Forestry & Environmental Resources

Publication date: Jan. 28, 2019
WON-31

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