Setting the Record Straight on Conservation Easements

By Beacon Staff

Conservation easements are a hot topic. There is no shortage of opinion and some folks aren’t shy about voicing those opinions. I read newspaper editorials every day and believe, without a doubt, that the editorial forum remains one of the strongest bastions of America’s defense of free speech. I enjoy reading opinions reflecting philosophical beliefs or personal values, particularly when those opinions are supported with accurate facts, and the key word here, is accurate. Sometimes a letter is written and supported by inaccurate information. These letters are difficult to read, particularly when the writer concludes with statements of proclaimed truth based on the bad information. There have been a number of poorly informed comments concerning conservation easements in past letters to the editor, which has compelled me to respond and set the record straight.

Before continuing, let me introduce myself. I am the new western manager of the Montana Land Reliance (MLR), a statewide private land trust dedicated to preserving open space. My background includes 10 years of experience in the field of geology and nearly 20 years managing my family farm in Bigfork. In addition, I have worked the past eight years for MLR as a land steward, monitoring approximately 50 conservation easements in northwestern Montana. Finally, my family, with the assistance of MLR, has permanently protected two pieces of our own property with conservation easements. This experience allows me to address a couple of false claims made in past editorials.

The first false claim I’ll address is that land held under a conservation easement is taken off the tax roll, requiring the remaining landowners to make up the difference in revenue. This claim is wrong. State law, under Montana Code, 76-6-208, prohibits land held under easement from being taxed in a lower property tax classification. As a landowner with a conservation easement, I would be happy to show anyone interested in my property tax bill. I get my bill from the county department of revenue, like every other landowner, every year, and have to pay it. Now, my family’s land is assessed as agricultural land, and it will stay that way. Because of the language in the easement, our land will never be subdivided and can grow any crop except a crop of houses. The county department of revenue reviews each new conservation easement and the appraised taxable value is based on the language defined in each easement. The bottom line is, my family owns land with a conservation easement and we pay property tax.

The second false claim is much more alarming and one I’ve heard repeated numerous times. It states that if a land trust purchases, in fee title, a piece of property which contains a conservation easement held by the land trust, the land trust can extinguish the easement and do anything with the property including subdividing it. This claim is also wrong. Last year the MLR pushed for the passage of Senate Bill No. 317. This bill, which was passed and signed into law, clarifies a land trust’s relationship to property which an easement is attached, or more specifically, with respect to extinguishment of the easement on that property. Senate Bill 317 amended the Montana Code making any attempt to extinguish an easement by taking fee title to the land the easement is attached, illegal. MLR helped introduce and supported Senate Bill 317 because it strengthens and clearly defines MLR’s relationship with land owners in both our efforts to protect space. A land trust is a partner with the landowner. Its job is to respect the original intentions of the landowner and ensure those intentions are honored through time.

Over the years I’ve heard both criticism of, and acclaim for, conservation easements. In fact all conservation easements are unique and therefore like anything else, whether you’re talking about doctors, teachers, or roads and bridges, there are good ones and bad ones. An easement is only as good as the words written in the recorded document. An individual can be philosophically in favor or opposed to the conservation easements, but opinions should be based on accurate facts. So in closing, when talking about conservation easements, get the facts straight. Don’t criticize an easement until you’ve read the easement language. Ensure you make good sense by using accurate information.

Mark Schiltz is the Western manager with the Montana Land Reliance