In The News

Hunterdon Review COMMENTARY: Understanding Preservation

Posted: Monday, November 16, 2015 3:00 am


As open space becomes scarce and wildlife is forced onto smaller domains, it has become imperative for homeowners to understand their land conservation options. Between easements, trade lands, and fee simple ownership, it can be challenging to discern which route to take.


Careful examination of each offering and the help of your local land trust can aid in dissecting the preservation process. A once commercial parcel of land in Hunterdon County demonstrates how almost every area is eligible for protection and the simplicity with which this safeguard can be obtained.


Christmas Tree Preserve, easily accessible off of Saw Mill Road, was purchased by the Tewksbury Land Trust in 2002 from John Johns after 20 years in service as a tree farm. Evergreens swathed in climbing vines and surrounded by milkweed with white puffs recall the days of yesteryear when families would eagerly select their holiday centerpiece.


Oak, walnut, maple, hickory, and elm trees populate the forest in abundance. Wine berries consumed by deer and birds can be spotted along the central field’s perimeter. The distinctive ring of a woodpecker often echoes through the woods while the brilliant hues of cardinals and blue jays flash between trees.


Robins, kinglets, and warblers, though less noticeable in their muted feathers, make Christmas Tree Preserve home as well.


Johns’ decision to sell property to a land trust reflects his own passion and dedication to private stewardship. This full transfer of property ownership is known as a fee simple.


Conservation organizations utilize grants and donations to purchase ecologically or aesthetically pleasing acreage, particularly if the property contains sensitive natural resources.


Other circumstances calling for fee simple ownership include the presence of nearby preserved land, demanding resource maintenance, and a desire to share the tract with community members.


For a nonprofit land trust, fee simple ownership may also be the result of a donation. Generous individuals or families benefit from tax deductions after handing over the reigns to a capable institution.


Preserved donations often hold the name of their late owner and offer a way for residents to serve their greater community well into the future. Alternatively, a donation can emerge in the form of trade lands. Although acreage may not be desirable for the purpose of retaining a rural feel or providing habitats, it can support the livelihood of a land trust in other ways.


Such gifts are intended to be sold, after which any profit goes towards a land trust.


Bargain sales provide landowners who may not be in a position to donate and are looking to make some revenue with a feasible solution.


This form of sale allows land trusts to purchase property below its fair market value. In addition to making land acquisition more affordable for conservation groups, bargain sales can avoid select capital gains taxes and provide charitable income tax deductions. These options enable generous individuals to protect the land they love under an array of situations.


Alternatively, conservation easements can be a flexible preservation opportunity for those who wish to continue living on or using their land. An easement is a voluntary agreement between government or local conservation groups and a landowner that permanently protects the area’s ecological value. The contract also prohibits further building developments and lowers estate taxes. Even if the land is sold or passed to an heir, environmentally conscious restrictions stay in place and continue to preserve the parcel.


Easements are usually donated and do not have to pertain to the entire estate. This path endeavors to make preservation an inviting, mutually beneficial experience.


Taking steps towards protecting a piece of land means investing in the livelihoods of native species and outdoor enthusiasts for decades to come. 


While fee simple ownership and bargain sales allow land trusts to oversee all facets of a holding, easements provide homeowners with the freedom to continue using their acreage. Donations, straightforward or as trade land, benefit the proprietor with tax deductions. Regardless of which option you pursue, it is imperative to recognize the timeless ecological value that comes with land preservation.