Water Law Basics column: Conservation easements one way agriculture is preserved
and Sara M. Dunn
Water Law Basics
The continued viability of agriculture on the Western Slope has been the subject of many conversations this year with the drought, the booming population of Colorado and changing priorities of Colorado’s citizens. Generations of knowledge and values that have defined the Western Slope are kept alive on our farms and ranches. Preserving our communities and protecting wildlife habitat, open space and scenic views requires sustainable agricultural.
Sustainable agricultural production requires responsible stewardship and financial stability. Since 1976, Colorado has provided a mechanism for landowners to perpetually protect their lands and associated water rights, while enjoying financial benefits through the grant of a conservation easement. The landowner retains ownership of the property after a conservation easement is conveyed.
Conservation easements can be created only by a voluntary agreement between the landowner and a government entity or a charitable land trust created for that purpose. The landowner selects the governmental entity, such as Colorado Parks and Wildlife, or a land trust that best suits their goals, objectives and interests to hold the conservation easement. The Aspen Valley Land Trust and the Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust hold many conservation easements in our area.
Aspen Valley Land Trust was organized in 1967 and is the oldest land trust in Colorado. To date, AVLT has conserved over 41,000 acres that protect local agriculture, rivers, wildlife habitat, recreational access, and outdoor educational opportunities in the Roaring Fork and Colorado River valleys. Roughly half of AVLT conserved lands lie within the greater Roaring Fork Valley, and half between Glenwood Springs and the Flat Tops north of De Beque.
The Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust was formed in 1995 to help Colorado’s ranchers and farmers protect their agricultural lands and encourage the intergenerational transfer of ranches and farms. CCALT focuses on agricultural easements and encourages traditional activities such as farming, grazing, hunting, fishing and recreation on the land.
The first step in conserving a property is identification of the property values that the landowner wants to preserve and the rights they are willing to relinquish in order to conserve the property. Landowners have flexibility in selecting which property rights they are willing to give up in exchange for a conservation easement.
In instances where farming and ranching are identified as the conservation values of a property, easements can be used as a tool to compensate landowners for tying their water resources to the land, defining stewardship obligations and permanently restricting development. This preserves the land for agricultural production while maintaining the scenic landscapes and wildlife habitat that draw recreation and tourism dollars to our communities.
When an easement is granted, the current use and management of the land is usually maintained resulting in very little impact on daily activities. Public access is not a requirement for conveying a conservation easement, although the property owner is required to grant the land trust access for monitoring visits.
Conservation easements are typically monitored on an annual basis and visits are coordinated with the landowner. The annual visit to the property is to ensure that the terms of the easement are being met, to continue to build relationships with the landowners, and to resolve stewardship issues that may arise.
Conservation easements can generate financial benefits for the landowners. Conservation easements are valued through an appraisal process which considers the value of the property without the conservation easement vs. the value of the property in its restricted state subject to the conservation easement. The difference between the two appraisal values is the conservation easement value which is used to calculate how much the landowner will be compensated for conserving their land.
Most conservation easements are donated, in which case the landowner is compensated through federal and state tax incentives. In some rare situations, grants may be available to compensate the landowner for a portion of the conservation value
A typical conservation easement takes approximately one year to complete. There are associated fees which vary greatly depending upon the circumstances. The fees cover a baseline inventory report, appraisals, title work, environmental assessments, mineral reports and the drafting of the legal documents necessary to create the conservation easement.
Landowners interested in more information on conservation easements can contact AVLT at http://www.avlt.org or 970-963-8440. The local Conservation Districts will be holding an Ag Expo on Feb. 2, 2019 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Garfield County Fair Grounds in Rifle where additional information regarding conservation easements can be obtained. Registration is required to attend the Expo. More details can be found at: http://www.bookcliffcd.org/.
Water Law Basics appears monthly in the Post Independent in cooperation with the area conservation districts. Matt Annabel is communications and outreach director for the Aspen Valley Land Trust, and Sara M. Dunn is district supervisor for the Bookcliff Conservation District.
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