Rural homes are often sought after for their natural beauty. Be it forested areas, picturesque streams or acres of untouched land, people want to live in the countryside to enjoy nature. Conservations easements (along with other environmental protection protocols) aim to protect this natural beauty.
When looking at country or rural homes you may come across a property that has a registered conservation easement on the land. Understanding what conservation easements are and how they work is important as they can have an impact on what you are or aren’t allowed to do with that property.
Below we answer some of the basic questions around conservation easements and offer up some advice for buying a property with one.
What is a Conservation Easement?
In short, this is a legal agreement between a landowner and an organization (such as a land trust, conservation organization, government agency, or local municipality).
The agreement aims to protect a portion of or the entire property by way of restricting what the land can be used for. Therefore putting rules into place about what future owners can/cannot do with the land. The protections laid out in the agreement are monitored and protected by the organization with which the easement has been registered, in perpetuity.
Under this agreement, the landowner can continue to use the land, sell it, gift it or pass it down to family.
To be clear, the landowner continues to own the rights to the property. Unless he/she decides to donate the entire property to a land trust which would be giving ownership to the land trust.
Conservation easement agreements can be tailored to the owner specifications as long as it aims to preserve the land.
This easement, like others, will be registered on the property title.
What do Conservation Easements Protect?
Conservation easements can be used to protect the following:
What Are Some Examples of Conservation Easements Restrictions?
Any restrictions or prohibitions will be laid out in the conservation easement agreement. Some examples include:
Restricting the cutting down of trees. For example, the restriction might be put in place to prevent any logging or forestry activities but still allow the owner the cut down some trees for limited personal use (like firewood).
Prohibiting any hunting of wildlife or fishing on the property.
Prohibiting any land development, be it residential, commercial, or industrial.
Prohibiting any extraction of archeological resources like sand, rock, gravel and other aggregates from the land.
Prohibiting any alternation of watercourses.
Are There Any Tax Benefits to Registering a Conservation Easement?
The short answer is yes, there can be.
By either registering a conservation easement or purchasing a property with an existing one, you may be able to benefit from either income tax deductions or reduced property taxes.
However, there are many requirements that must be met in order to qualify.
There are a lot of nuances that go into qualifying for these programs. It would be imperative that you speak with a tax accountant versed in such programs to get the best advice.
As a place to start, you can explore the tax benefit program resources below:
Can a Conservation Easement Be Altered?
There is no simple “yes” or “no” answer to this, unfortunately.
We would say that most of the time the answer is No.
However, it depends on a few things:
- The property and what is being protected
- What exactly is stipulated in the conservation easement agreement
- What you want to alter and by how much
- Possibly which organization the conservation easement is registered with
For example, if you wanted to make an alteration to a home registered with the Ontario Heritage Trust in such a way as to maintain the integrity of the build you would likely have the support of this.
You would need to start by asking for permission from the conservation organization or trust with which the easement is registered and go from there.
How Do I Know if the Property I Am Buying Has a Registered Conservation Easement?
During your due diligence process, you can do a few things to find out if the property of interest has a registered conservation easement on it.
- Your real estate agent can ask the listing agent as the seller should know (but may not).
- Your agent or you can check with the local municipality.
- Have your lawyer pull the title of the property and see if there are any registered easements. This is going to be the best and most accurate option.
Can Zoning and Permitted Uses Have an Impact on the Conservation Easement?
Another “no simple answer” answer. In some situations, yes and in others, no. As is most often the case, it depends on the scenario. We’ll give you two example scenarios:
- A vacant land property has zoning that does not permit the building of any kind on that property. An owner cannot register a conservation easement that allows for the building of a home on that property.
- A vacant land property has zoning that allows for the building of a single-family residence. A registered conservation easement on this property does not allow for the building of any kind on the land. Even though the zoning allows it, the conservation easement takes precedent here and one could not build a home on the property.
Another important note is that even if zoning were to change, the conservation easement will still persist as they are registered on title and run with the land (not with ownership). For instance, if the zoning change on agricultural land allowed the building of a subdivision by the municipality but a registered conservation easement protection did not allow this, no subdivision could be built on the land.
Advice for Buying a Property With a Conservation Easement
Conservation easements are excellent tools that help with protecting green spaces and land in general. But they can also be restrictive when it comes to building or making other property alterations.
Be aware of the restrictions upfront so that you can make an informed decision on whether the property is for you or not. If you decide to go ahead with a purchase, know as much as you can about the easement so you don’t run into any surprises in the future.
If there is an easement on the land, you will also want to explore information on the organisation with which the conservation easement is registered. They may want to monitor the property from time to time and it is good to make sure your goals, plans, and ideas line up with that of the conservation authority or trust.
It is also worth noting that should you one day want to sell your property, the conservation easement may be of some concern to potential buyers. This likely won’t be a huge issue as many people wanting to buy a rural property appreciate the land protection but again it depends on the property and the restrictions involved.
Speak with a lawyer. It is so important to seek legal advice from a qualified professional on these matters.
If you are interested in Ontario Land Trusts, you can find a list of all registered Trusts here.
Did we miss anything on conservation easements? Do you have other questions or concerns? If so, get in touch and we’d be happy to help!