Over the past 37 years, landowners who have generously donated conservation easements to the Vermont Land Trust have protected over 100,000 acres—more than 20 percent of all VLT-conserved land. Their reasons for donating an easement vary, but common to all is a deep love of their land and a desire to see the land cared for, both now and in the future.
Marshfield: Protecting a Deep Connection to the Land
Hollister Hill in Marshfield has been busy with conservation projects as of late. Notably, the community came together last year to purchase the 620-acre Virginia Stranahan Town Forest. As the community rallied to raise money, a dozen local artists staged a “paint out,” capturing scenes of the forest and pastures one morning and then donating all proceeds from the sale of their artwork.
Chuck Bohn, one of the participating artists, got the idea to conserve his own land when VLT’s Mark McEathron came to the Marshfield town meeting to explain the Stranahan proposal. Chuck and his wife, Barbara, who live just a few miles down Hollister Hill Road from the town forest, donated an easement on 83 acres.
An art teacher from Indiana, Chuck bought the 1835 farmhouse and surrounding forest nearly 50 years ago because of the inspiration the place provided for his painting. He and Barbara permanently relocated to the farm in 1965 and made the most of it. “We were ‘localvores’ before it was cool,” Barbara says with a chuckle. “We raised pigs, beef, and sheep for our own consumption, planted apple trees, made maple syrup, and cut our own firewood.”
The Bohns also started a cut-your-own Christmas tree stand. “There were native balsam firs growing right in the woods, so I’d go out and pull seedlings, put ‘em in a transplant bed, and then hope for the best,” Chuck recalls. Their business thrived for decades. Cutting a tree from the Bohns became the Christmas tradition for many local families. When they finally retired the operation last year, there were protests from long-time customers.
While the Bohns have several neighbors on Hollister Hill who have conserved their land, they often get questions from others who are interested. “People ask us, ‘Why did you do it? What do you get out of it?’” says Chuck. “Well, the reason is really that we just wanted to conserve the land. My dream is for one of our kids to take over this place and do what we do. That might not happen, but we just hope whoever moves here loves the land as much as we do.”
Londonderry: Six Siblings Use Conservation to Help Manage the Land
M.A. Swedlund was a young girl when her parents bought an old, abandoned dairy farm in South Londonderry. “Initially, it was our winter retreat, but we ended up spending entire summers there haying the fields, riding horses, and swimming in the streams,” she recalls. “It was among the best times in our lives.”
The farm took on a new role after M.A. and her five brothers grew up. “As we spread out and started families of our own, the farm became a place where we could all get together for the holidays without the distractions of ‘real life’,” she explains. “It has become an important part of our family culture. That’s something we talked about when we considered putting it into the land trust.”
M.A. and her brothers have owned the land since their father passed away in 1991. The family was familiar with conservation and decided it would be a good way to keep the 253-acre property intact. Perhaps the greatest benefit of donating an easement, in M.A.’s view, is that it will make life easier for the next generation when the time comes to pass the land along to them. “There are six of us siblings, so you can imagine how many there will be in the next generation,” she says. “As more people get involved in ownership, there is a greater variety of interests and potential for disagreement. And the easement removes any temptation to subdivide.”
“That might sound negative, but I look at it as a positive—to remove the potential for family strife,” she adds.
Financial Costs and Benefits
Donating an easement can cost money, which might come as a surprise to some people. “Even for an easement donation, there is a great deal of VLT staff time involved,” explains John Roe, vice president for land conservation. “A project manager works with the landowner to figure out their long-term goals and to discuss the land’s conservation values. Behind the scenes our mapping department creates maps, and in some cases, our conservation biologist will walk the land. Once the project manager and landowner reach an agreement, our paralegals draft on easement and our attorney, Rick Peterson, comes in to handle the closing.”
The whole process can take a while to complete, but it can be a productive and educational experience for the landowner. “The longer it took, the more questions we had, and the more it turned out to our liking,” Barbara Bohn recalls.
To ensure that a conservation easement is upheld, money must be set aside for the stewardship of the land now and far in the future. Stewardship is the ongoing responsibility to safeguard and uphold the legal agreement signed voluntarily by the landowner. This includes visits by VLT’s stewardship staff and any land management guidance, mapping or legal services that may be required to maintain the easement. To accomplish this, VLT created a stewardship endowment. In addition to the immediate staff costs of
conservation, landowners, foundations, and/or other funders contribute toward the endowment for each piece of land that is conserved. Both the costs of conserving the land and the contribution toward the endowment are deductible expenses. “In many cases, landowners cover these expenses; they see it as an investment to protect their conservation legacy into the future,” explains Dennis Shaffer, vice president for stewardship.
An optional cost, but one that can be a savings, is an appraisal. Landowners will need to get the conservation easement appraised if they wish to reap tax benefits—which, at the moment, are significant. In the past, an easement donor could take a charitable income tax deduction of the easement’s value, but not exceeding 30 percent of adjusted gross income in the year of the gift. Any unused value could be carried forward, but for not more than five additional years. This often prevented landowners from realizing the full value of an easement donation. Congress extended through the end of
2009 2013 improved incentives that better serve landowners with modest incomes. Now, you can take a deduction of up to 50 percent of adjusted gross income for a period of up to 15 years after your donation. Congress is considering making this provision permanent.
This legislation has resulted in a surge of easement donations nationwide, including Vermont. “The fact that there was a substantial tax deduction certainly didn’t deter us from donating the easement,” says M.A. Swedlund. “It wasn’t the main reason, but it sweetened the deal, and made it seem like a good idea to do it now rather than later.”
Underhill: Easing Land Transfers to the Next Generation
Donating an easement also tends to reduce estate taxes because the removal of development rights often reduces the value of the estate. This factored into Bob and Julia Northrop’s decision to donate an easement on 280 acres of woodland in Underhill in 2006. “Had it gone into our estate at fair market value, the estate taxes would have been too high for our children,” said Bob. “Still, that wasn’t the most compelling reason. We did it because we loved the land and have lived here for 50 years.”
Bob has hiked the Long Trail on six occasions, most recently at the age of 80 with his son and grandson. The first time he completed the hike, in 1937, he fell in love with the Green Mountains. After attending Middlebury College, he found work as a teacher at Burlington High School. In 1958, Bob found his dream home on Irish Settlement Road, just a few miles from where the Long Trail reaches its highest elevation at the summit of Mount Mansfield.
“The house was built in the 1860s by Irish potato famine refugees who raised sheep in the summers,” Bob explains. So, the Northrops tried their hand at it. “My wife’s been a knitter all her life. We started out with two sheep; we liked the idea, and it grew bigger. Eventually I took early retirement from teaching and we had a mail-order wool business with up to 150 lambs born every year.”
Bob and Julia first conserved their 46-acre sheep farm with the American Farmland Trust. Then, when they decided to conserve the 280-acre woodlot, they worked with VLT and the Jericho Underhill Land Trust.
Because the Northrops are enrolled in Vermont’s Use Value Appraisal Program, commonly known as Current Use, the woodlot is assessed only for its income-producing potential from forestry. VLT’s stewardship team assisted Bob and Julia with a forest management plan. They also get quite a bit of help from their son, Chas, a logger who lives in Richford. “Chas knows that land better than anyone in the world,” says Bob. He and Barbara aren’t sure if Chas or their other children will want to take over the land, but they are happy knowing that the easement donation will make the transfer less of a burden.
The Northrops, Bohns, and M.A. Swedlund have all said they would be happy to discuss their experiences donating easements with anyone who is considering doing the same. “Working with the Vermont Land Trust was terrific. They made the whole process very easy,” says M.A. “Vermont is so magnificent because of its land, and we all felt really good in protecting a bit of it. It’s just the right thing to do.”
To learn more or to begin the process of donating a conservation easement, please call the Vermont Land Trust at (802) 223-5234.