Land Conservation Easements

Three families share their experiences entering legal agreements to defend their land from development.

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by Bruce Ingram
Former Blue Ridge Land Conservancy employee and friend of the author Meagan Cupka kneels near the Lipscombs’ fenced riparian zone that keeps cows out of the creek so it’s more inviting to wildlife.

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Do you want to protect the wide-open spaces in the mountains, valleys, and streams of our country, where we live, farm, hike, bike, bird, fish, hunt, and experience a host of other outdoor activities? Then consider protecting your property in perpetuity through a conservation easement.

For those unfamiliar with the term, conservation easements are voluntary, legal agreements between landowners and a land trust to permanently protect land from development. In exchange for giving up all or partial development rights, landowners gain significant tax advantages as well as the satisfaction that their land will always remain free of large-scale development.

Emily Bender, assistant director of the Blue Ridge Land Conservancy (BRLC), says this satisfaction is invaluable to many. “For many landowners, easements offer a sense of security, in knowing that their family land will remain intact and can be enjoyed for future generations,” she says. “There is often a sense of reassurance knowing that there will be open space available for farms and forests that are protected by conservation easements.”

Plus, she says, “easements also provide many protections and are customized to address the values of each property.” Bender says this can include the protection of water quality and forest habitat or limitations on the number of property divisions that are permitted. “Land trusts work hard to ensure that the goals of landowners drive the project and that their vision for the property is protected and enhanced by the conservation easement.”

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Seeking these benefits and more, the following three families placed their Virginia land under easements.

A Reinvigorated Refuge

As John and Abby Lipscomb grew older, they decided they desired several things for their Botetourt County cattle farm: to protect it from development, to create a fenced riparian zone to keep cows out of Catawba Creek, and to possibly pass on 100 acres of the land to their children.

couple in green pasture

“We knew our farm would be worth more to developers if we sold it without an easement,” John says. “But our kids and Abby and I didn’t want that. So we all decided that a conservation easement was the way to go.”

And the family’s conservation work didn’t stop there. “It also bothered all of us that cattle had worn down the creek’s banks and were often in the stream,” John says. “So we fenced them out of the creek and created livestock wells on our land so that the cows could still access water. We now have a 35-foot buffer zone on both sides of the creek, and it’s such a great spot for us and our kids and grandkids to walk along and enjoy the stream and its wildlife.”

John and Abby’s son, Ethan, and his wife, Jenny, both in their 30s, regard the property as a refuge.
“I like the quiet and the peacefulness of the Catawba Valley,” Ethan says.

“This farm reminds me of my grandfather’s ranch in Columbia [Virginia],” Jenny says. “The views of the forest and outdoorsy smells of the cows and grass are exactly the same. When I come here, I feel like I am back home.”

While we wander across the parcel, John points to where he had positioned a fence to protect a small wetland. There, I observe a red-winged blackbird singing and an Eastern kingbird capturing a flying insect.

David Perry, executive director of the BRLC, is well-aware of how the Lipscombs have reinvigorated the property. “It’s great to see what they have done here, especially the thriving of the wetland and creek’s riparian zone,” he says. “The first time I came here, the wetland wasn’t protected, and the creek’s banks were eroded. The farmers and wildlife downstream both benefit from what’s been accomplished here.”

Roots in a Rich, Rewarding Life

Alex Moore never planned to spend his adult life on his family’s Augusta County farm where he grew up. In fact, he spent his college years hiding his roots.

“I didn’t want to be known as a ‘farm kid,'” 31-year-old Alex says. “There’s this narrative in some circles that farmers are farmers because they’re less intelligent. After college, I had this job where I sat behind a computer all day, which was about as far away as I could get from nature.”

couple in field

But then came the epiphany. Alex encountered Wendell Berry’s Port William series of novels, short stories, and poems, which feature the importance of families, a sense of place, rural America, and an environmental ethic.

“The things I read about in Berry’s books were very much like what I experienced growing up,” Alex says. “They helped me understand the importance of being a good farmer, the nobility of it … and why sustainable farming is good for the environment. … Since I’ve returned to the farm, I’ve learned what a rich and rewarding life farming can be. As a culture, we’ve lost that connection to the land and community that Berry celebrated. I want to foster those connections in my sustainable farming practices and also in my relationships.”

Toward that sustainability, Alex raises 100 percent grass-fed-and-finished beef, pastured poultry, and non-GMO pork. He has named this enterprise Anathallo Acres, Greek for “to flourish anew” or “to grow greener.” A good example of how Alex practices sustainability is how he employs chickens. Birds are rotated from paddock to paddock every few days, thus dispersing their manure and enriching the soil at the same time, as well as enhancing the flavor of their meat and eggs.

herding cattle

After all of his hard work and the thought process involved, Alex decided to place the land under a conservation easement. No better way exists, he thought, to protect his way of life.

When I visit, Alex is in the process of moving a bull and sheep to a new paddock, with his border collie Ida doing the herding. “I need some ground beef to sell at the Staunton Farmers’ Market, and this is a surplus bull,” Alex explains. “The sheep will appreciate the fresh grass, and the other pasture will have a chance to reinvigorate itself now.”

For our next stop, we hike to the highest hill on the property, from which Alex says, “This is the view that sold my family and me on the property.” And no wonder; it’s stunning. We admire the farm, its outbuildings, and the surrounding mountains, a vista Alex can regularly revisit to survey the land he’s worked so hard to protect.

Carrying On Family Traditions

In 1963, the Sanders purchased Black Hollow Properties in Pulaski County. Today, the 616-acre organic dairy farm is under a conservation easement. Blair Sanders hopes his children, Grace and Matthew (29 and 31 years old, respectively), will continue the farming tradition. Blair says he went the easement route because he was tired of development consuming rural America. Grace Sanders Bayse heartily agreed with the easement, as well as the decision to certify the farm as organic.

“We were already doing many of the things required to make the farm Certified Organic,” she says. “So we decided to go through the process and make the designation official.”

On their farm, the Sanders family:

  • Gives aloe, instead of antibiotics, to the cows when they have upset stomachs.
  • Gives cows a mix of garlic, cayenne, peppermint, cloves, and other herbs and vitamins when they aren’t feeling well.
  • Feeds a grass-based diet to the bovines for most of the year.
  • Feeds organic grain to cattle when they aren’t consuming grass or hay.
  • Uses blood and fish meal as well as poultry litter to nourish the soil, instead of synthetic fertilizer.
  • Fences off streams to cow access, and provides water systems in the pastures for the cows.

It’s this last act that Grace is particularly proud of. “Fencing our cows out of streams is good for our land, the farms downstream, and the New River watershed,” she says. “When I was little, the riparian zone was so barren on our place. Now, the vegetation is really lush because of the fencing.”

During my trip to the Sanderses’ spread, Grace takes me on a tour. Our first stop is a meadow wetland where the family had fenced out cattle. Then, it’s on to a creek where, as at the Lipscombs’, a healthy riparian zone reveals the perks of creative fencing. One of the most impressive things about the tour is the concern the young farmer shows for the family’s herd. It’s calving season, and Grace proudly shows me some week-old calves and one female that had been born a few minutes before, her mother a heifer that had just produced her first offspring.

“Each cow has her own personality,” marvels Grace as she examines the newborn. “Some cows make great mothers for their calves, and a few will gladly nurse even other cows’ calves. Some don’t want to be bothered with nursing their calves and see their thing as being with the herd and producing milk. It’s a really rewarding job being outdoors and experiencing all this.”

Why I Placed My Land Under Easements

My wife, Elaine, and I both grew up in Western Virginia subdivisions. But soon after our marriage, we decided that our eventual goal was to own rural land. We further decided we would forego various material goods to achieve that objective. Today, we own 640 acres and have placed three properties (consisting of 442 acres) in Craig County, Virginia, under conservation easements.

We did so simply because we wanted to protect wildlife habitat, as all three parcels either border the Jefferson National Forest or have springs or streams on them. When we first looked into easements, we had no idea we would receive considerable tax advantages for doing so – protecting rural land was just something we wanted to do. The federal tax deduction is based on the value of eased property (determined by an appraisal); BRLC’s Emily Bender says landowners should speak to a tax adviser who’s familiar with conservation easements to learn more about the benefits than I knew going in.

But more rewarding than tax breaks, for me, has been witnessing younger generations using sustainable practices and conservation easements to keep our rural areas rural and to be good stewards of their land – which, when protected and healthy, can be a place of refuge, connection, and abundance.


Conservation Easements, Step by Step

On its website, the Blue Ridge Land Conservancy details the steps for entering a conservation easement, which are fairly standard nationwide. Here’s an abbreviated look at those steps.

  • Consideration of easement: Land trust and property owners discuss landowners’ goals and plans for property.
  • Site visit: Land trust and property owners visit land together.
  • Preliminary agreement: Land trust works with property owners and their attorney on easement terms that will fulfill landowners’ objectives, protect property, and meet land trust’s objectives.
  • Requirement for title opinion: The landowners’ attorney shows that landowners have clear title to land.
  • Staff research: Land trust staff researches property.
  • Board approval: Land trust’s board approves property as eligible for easement.
  • Follow-up site visit: Land trust makes return visit for documentation and photographing purposes.
  • Baseline documentation: Land trust staff documents details of property.
  • Finalizing easement draft: Landowners’ attorney produces final draft of easement.
  • Recordation: Landowners’ attorney records easement.

Bruce and Elaine Ingram live in Troutville, Virginia. They’re the authors of Living the Locavore Lifestyle. For more information on this book and others they’ve written, email them at BruceIngramOutdoors@Gmail.com.