What Can I Do to Protect My Land?
Each decision to conserve a property is a deeply personal one. It involves the landowners financial and family circumstances, the land resource itself, and most importantly, the owners vision for the future of that land. One of the best ways to protect natural areas is through good private stewardship. This often simply means leaving the sensitive portions of the property alone. It can mean using some areas wisely for forestry, farming, recreation or personal enjoyment, and setting other areas aside for conservation.
You can also protect your land more formally using the land conservation tools available through Alachua County's land conservation program, Alachua County Forever. Because every situation is unique, Alachua County Forever offers several different mechanisms to conserve productive, scenic, historic and environmentally important lands. These lands give Alachua County its rural, historic and natural character that many residents value and want to sustain. You can combine different options to get the right mix of sale, donation or agreement to provide the best opportunities to protect your land, and to meet your and your family's financial needs and other interests.
Here is a chart of Conservation Options that works as a pathway to guide you through the various options. As you read through the descriptions of the options, ask yourself: "What is it about the land that is important to me? What are its special natural features? Do I wish to protect all the land or part of it? How strong should the protection be? How will different options affect me financially? How could my actions affect my family? How will these protections be guaranteed?"
There are three critical questions in the pathway: Do you want to protect the property? Do you want to be able to pass it on to your heirs or sell it later? Do you want to continue to use the property? Think carefully about your answers to these questions as they will indicate your preferred alternatives. If you want to try other options, retrace your steps and answer the questions differently.
ACF staff will be happy to discuss any of these with you, but as with any valuable asset, you should seek professional financial and legal advice.
Many land owners who care about protecting their land are not in a position to donate land and may not want to sell it. A good alternative is a conservation easement. It allows you to protect your land, and benefit from potential tax breaks, while keeping ownership and the rights to continue traditional uses of the property.
A conservation easement is a legal agreement between you, the landowner, and Alachua County that allows us to work as partners to permanently protect the land. You place voluntary restrictions on land uses to protect its conservation values. These restrictions become part of the property deed, so they apply to whoever owns the land in the future, thereby protecting your original conservation intent. Alachua County Forever ensures that all future owners look after the land in the way that you set out in your agreement by periodically visiting the property.
A conservation easement is flexible and can be tailored to meet your financial and personal needs and wishes, and the needs of the natural areas. An easement on property with rare wildlife habitat, for example, might not allow any development, while one on a farm might allow continued farming and the construction of additional farm buildings.
An easement allows you and your family to continue to use and enjoy the land the same way you always have, and to sell the land or pass it on to heirs. An easement can apply to an entire property, or a portion of it, such as the land along the shore of a lake or river.
There are generally three potential tax benefits that can accrue to landowners when they place a conservation easement on their property; reductions in property taxes, income and capital gains taxes, and reductions in estate taxes. A conservation easement may lower your property taxes because of the lower market value of the property once it is restricted. Alachua County has recognized this reduction on other conserved property and has reduced the taxable value of the property accordingly.
A conservation easement may help you to pass land on the next generation. By limiting the development potential of the land, the easement may lower its market value. This in turn may lower capital gains, inheritance or estate taxes that heirs need to pay on an inheritance or gift. Whether donated during your lifetime or by will, it can make a critical difference in your heirs' ability to keep the land intact. Finally, donating an easement on environmentally significant land may also qualify as a tax-deductible charitable donation for income tax purposes.
Conservation easements can also be used in combination with the sale or donation of land (see the following sections). This gives you control over use of the land, preserves the special qualities of that property, even after you no longer own it, and allows you to combine the advantages of different options to extend the benefits to you and your family.
For much more on conservation easements, please click here.
Alachua County Forever is restricted to perpetual ownership of interests in real property and leases do not fit our business model. However a private land trust may be willing to lease your property (or part of it) for conservation purposes. A lease gives a conservation agency the right to enter the property and manage it for a set term. This option leaves the land in your ownership, ensures the land is protected in the short term, and may provide some income for you. A lease, however, is not a permanent form of protection, and can be broken relatively easily. Future owners do not have to honor the lease. Alachua County Forever can direct you to some local and national land trusts.
Donating land for conservation is one the finest legacies you can leave to future generations. It may be the best conservation strategy for you, if you do not wish to pass the land on to heirs, if you own property that you no longer use, or you no longer want the responsibility of looking after the land, or paying property taxes. It may also be the best strategy if the value of your land has appreciated significantly or you have many real estate holdings or other financial assets and want to reduce capital gains taxes for yourself or your heirs. Donating conservation land may provide income tax deductions, depending on your financial situation, the nature of the land and the donation arrangement. Most important, if you donate land because of its conservation value, you can be assured that it will be protected.
- Outright Donation:
Donating land to Alachua County Forever is the easiest way to protect property. You can decide how the land can be used now, and in the future. Giving a gift of land can be a source of much personal pride and satisfaction. You can even give a gift of land as a memorial to a loved one. This is an honor that will reach far into the future. It may also provide tax benefits for you at the time it is donated, and if structured properly, can provide you with tax benefits for many succeeding years depending on your personal financial situation and the value of the donation.
- Donation with a Reserved Life Estate:
You can donate land with an agreement that you and your family be allowed to live out your lives on the land. You can continue to enjoy your land as long as you follow the terms of the agreement you make. You may be eligible for an income tax deduction when you make the gift.
- Donation by Will:
If you want to own and control your land during your lifetime, but assure its protection after your death, you can donate land in your will. Alachua County Forever can help to work out details with you. The potential income and property tax benefits would not be available during your lifetime, but may benefit heirs of the property. This option gives you and your family opportunity to change your mind later.
- Donation with an Easement:
Before you donate the land, either now or in your will, you can add a conservation easement to the deed. This will ensure that future owners honor your wishes for the property. If you donate the easement to Alachua County Forever, and the land itself to another conservation group or agency, (or vice versa) you may receive additional tax breaks
- Donation for Resale:
You can also donate land to a conservation organization, even if the land has no conservation value. The land can then be sold to provide funding for other conservation efforts. You may receive income tax benefits from your gift.
You may at some time consider selling your land and because you would like to see it protected, you may prefer to sell to Alachua County Forever. In exceptional cases, we may approach you and offer to buy your land to conserve its natural resource values. In some special cases, we may not need to purchase the fee interest in the property and can thereby close the gap between the funds available to Alachua County Forever, the many properties we'd like to protect, and the price you would like to receive.
- Outright Sale (Fee Simple Sale):
You can simply sell the property to Alachua County Forever for an agreed upon price. Alachua County Forever can then place an easement on the property or otherwise protect it. This option may not be as advantageous for you as it seems. Capital gains taxes on the sale proceeds may be high if the value of the land has appreciated since you have owned it.
- Sale with a Reserved Life Estate:
You may wish to sell land to Alachua County Forever for a reduced cost with an agreement that you (and your children) may continue to live on the property for the rest of your lives. You can use it as always, providing you do not damage the natural area. Alachua County Forever will periodically visit with you to make sure they are no issues that need attention.
- Right of First Refusal:
You may not wish to sell the land immediately, but may wish to give Alachua County Forever the first chance to buy the property if you decide to sell. If another party offers to buy the land, the agreement gives us a chance to match the offer. It can also give us time to raise funds to buy the property. There is a risk that the County will not be able to raise the necessary money at the time you wish to sell it, and the property may then be sold to whomever you choose.
- Bargain Sale of Land (part donation / part sale):
This option may provide income from selling a portion of the land, plus tax benefits from donating the remaining portion. If you need to make some immediate income from selling your land, yet would like to see the property go to Alachua County Forever, a bargain sale might be the answer. You sell the land for less than its fair market value. This not only makes it more affordable to the Program, but offers several benefits to you. It provides you with cash. It may avoid some capital gains tax, and it may provide an income tax deduction since the difference between the selling price and its appraised value is considered a donation. You must make your donative intent clear prior to the beginning of the negotiations so you can qualify for the benefits.
- Sale with an Easement:
You can place an easement on your land with Alachua County Forever before selling it on the open market. You could receive the potential benefits of an easement, know that your land will be protected forever, and still receive income from selling it. Alachua County Forever, as the easement holder, would be responsible for continuing to make sure that the conservation values are maintained.
- Sale and Buyback or Leaseback with Restrictions:
If you would like to protect your land, but you want little involvement while conservation tools are put in place, you can sell or donate it to a conservation group or agency with a special agreement. Once the group gets the land protected through an option like an easement, they resell the land to you at the agreed price. Alachua County Forever may be involved as the ultimate easement holder or management agency.
Summary and Links
Private land conservation is a commitment we all must share. It is a commitment to sustainable, sensible and ethical use of the land. Many landowners have concern for wildlife and natural systems on their property and want to do what they can to preserve its special natural heritage. Many want to be even more active and more effective in protecting natural areas. The conservation options outlined here may provide ways you can put your commitment to work.
Please contact us at: Alachua County Forever Land Conservation Program 408 West University Avenue, Suite 106 Gainesville, FL 32601 Phone: (352) 264-6800 Fax: (352) 264-6852 Email