Keeping our most valuable landscapes intact protects water and air quality, agricultural resources, open space, plant and wildlife habitat, outdoor recreation opportunities, and contributes to a better quality of life in our community. Help us make sure the very best landscapes are not lost forever.
The Hopkinton Area Land Trust doesn’t buy land. Land is either donated to HALT by a landowner, or the landowner grants HALT a Conservation Restriction on land (an easement) but retains possession of it. In both cases, the Trust is responsible for managing the land to insure it retains its conservation value, and generally makes decisions about what can be done with the land. Land that HALT owns is always open to the public for passive recreation, and HALT generally only accepts land under a Conservation Restriction with that same proviso. So, for all practical purposes, HALT’s management of a piece of property is the same regardless of whether HALT owns the land or has a Conservation Restriction on it.
For every such property, HALT, sometimes working with the landowner, prepares a baseline documentation report (that includes a baseline map and photos) that documents the important conservation values protected by the ownership/easement and the conditions of the property as necessary to monitor and enforce the ownership/easement. Sometimes seasonal conditions or other factors prevent the completion of a full baseline documentation report when the land is acquired, but it is done at the earliest possible time.
HALT monitors its properties regularly, at least annually, in a manner appropriate to the size and restrictions of each property, and keeps documentation (such as reports, updated photographs and maps) of each monitoring activity. This monitoring is usually performed by land stewards–individuals who donate their time because they have an interest in preserving the conservation value of a property. Often these stewards are nearby residents.
Download a copy of the Stewardship Report (PDF)
What is a Conservation Restriction?
A conservation restriction is a voluntary agreement in which a landowner limits specified uses (e.g., development) of his or her property while retaining private ownership of the land. The limitations are designed to prevent harm to the features or qualities sought to be protected. It is a legal document restricting future uses of the land. The restriction is signed by the landowner (the restriction donor) and the non-profit conservation-minded entity (e.g., HALT) receiving the restriction. The recipient accepts the restriction with the legal responsibility to enforce the terms of the restriction in perpetuity. In Middlesex County, after the restriction is signed, it is recorded with the Registry of Deeds and all future owners of the land are bound by the terms of the restriction.
Why do Property Owners Donate or Grant Conservation Restrictions?
Landowners grant Conservation Restrictions because they want to protect a property’s natural and scenic features, while limiting development. They will grant a Conservaion Restriction if they wish to retain ownership of their land and keep it in their family for future generations. By granting a Conservation Restriction, a landowner can be assured that the property will be protected and cared for forever, regardless of who owns the land in the future. Significant federal income and estate tax benefits, as well as local real estate tax benefits, can result from the granting of such a restriction. The Internal Revenue Service allows a federal income tax deduction if the restriction is perpetual, donated “exclusively for conservation purposes”, granted to a qualified conservation organization (or proper government entity) and supported by a “qualified appraisal”. The amount of the tax deduction is determined by the value of the Conservation Restriction.
Sometimes landowners will donate the property to HALT instead of granting a Conservation Restriction. This has similar tax benefits and protections, but the landowner relinquishes all control over the land. This type of transfer often occurs when the owner no longer has an interest in possessing the land. For example, a developer of a subdivision may donate land to the Trust that is outside the areas of buildable lots, and the developer has no need to retain ownership of the non-buildable portions.
Sometimes, when land is donated to HALT, it comes with the requirement that HALT grant a Conservation Restriction on the land to some other conservation-minded entity. In Hopkinton this could be an organization like Friends of Whitehall, Lake Maspenock Preservation Association, Sudbury Valley Trustees, or even the town, through the Conservation Commission. A Conservation Restriction must be given to some entity other than the owner, so HALT cannot own restrictions on its own land. Conservation Restrictions are generally required for land procured through Hopkinton’s Open Space and Landscape Preservation Development bylaw, to insure the land is protected regardless of what happens to HALT.
What Activities Are Allowed on Land Protected by a Conservation Restriction?
The terms of a restriction will vary from property to property, depending upon the goals of the landowner (grantor) and the conservation entity (grantee). In some instances, no further development is allowed on the land. In other circumstances, some additional development is allowed, but it is limited. Conservation Restrictions may be designed to cover all or only a portion of a property. Every restriction is unique, tailored to a particular landowner’s goals and his/her land. Almost all the land under Conservation Restrictions granted to HALT are open to passive recreation such as hiking, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, and the Trust has the right to maintain the trails.
Can the Landowner Still Sell or Give the Property Away?
The landowner continues to own the property after executing a restriction. Therefore, the owner can sell, give or lease the property, as before. However, all future owners must abide by the restriction.
Does the Public Have a Right of Access to Restriction Protected Property?
The public does not automatically have access to property protected by a restriction unless the original landowner who grants the restriction specifically allows such access. However, HALT’s goal is to manage lands for public access, so most restrictions accepted by HALT allow this.
How Long Does a Restriction Last and Who Upholds It in the Future?
To be eligible for a federal income tax deduction, the easement must be “perpetual”. The restriction holder monitors the property, generally once a year, to assure that the restriction is being upheld. If the restriction has been breached the restriction holder will take whatever steps are necessary to uphold the terms of the restriction, including legal action. Because of this obligation, the HALT requests the donor to make a financial contribution to its endowment fund, whose amount varies depending on the size of the land and other characteristics. This fund ensures long-term monitoring and enforcement of every restriction. The contribution to the endowment fund may also be tax deductible.
Who Holds the Conservation Restriction?
To qualify for a tax deduction, the restriction must be donated to the government or a qualifying conservation or historic preservation organization. HALT, as a 501(c)(3) organization, qualifies as a federally recognized public charity.
Who Owns and Manages Restriction Protected Land?
The landowner retains full rights to control, manage and convey his/her property, subject to the limits of the restriction. The landowner continues to bear all costs and liabilities related to ownership and maintenance of the property (for example removing dangerous trees). HALT monitors the property to ensure compliance with the restriction’s terms, and may maintain or build trails on the land if the restriction permits it, but it has no other management responsibilities and exercises no direct control over other activities on the land permitted by the restriction.
Does the Restriction Have to Cover All of the Landowner’s Property?
No. Some restrictions cover only a portion of the landowner’s property. Again, it depends on the landowner’s wishes.
What Kind of Land Can be Protected by a Conservation Restriction?
It is possible to place a conservation restriction on different types and sizes of property, dependent upon what the owner wishes to achieve. The law differs from state to state in terms of what can be protected and under what circumstances it can be protected.
Who Should “Hold” the Restriction?
The relationship between the present and future owners of the land and the holder of the restriction will last indefinitely. In a sense, the owner and holder of the restriction are co-owners, dependent upon each other for mutual cooperation and assistance in stewarding the land. For this reason local and regional land trusts are often the typical recipients of conservation restrictions. Some municipal, state and federal agencies also play this role.
It is extremely important to document the condition of the property at the beginning of the restriction. The federal tax code requires this documentation. This documentation is also essential to minimizing the potential for disputes between the property owner and the holder of the restriction.
Steps in Donating or Selling a Conservation Restriction
In order to accomplish the donation or sale of a conservation restriction, the landowner must work closely with the organization receiving the restriction. This work may include, but is not necessarily limited to: (1) touring the property to evaluate and discuss the planned restriction; (2) getting approval from the restriction holder’s board of directors; (3) consulting with legal and tax counsel; (4) preparing baseline documentation of the property and an environmental inspection report; (5) performing a title search and obtaining mortgage information; (6) obtaining a mortgage subordination from the lender if there is an existing lien; (7) negotiating the restrictions and drafting the document; (8) obtaining a “qualified” appraisal (if wishing to claim a deduction valued at over $5,000); and (9) signing and recording the final conservation restriction and related documents.