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When Land Becomes Part of a Land Trust

Mary Connolly
October 5, 2023

This article is part one of a three-part series. Sign up for our e-news to read the rest!

Did you know that Harpswell Heritage Land Trust (HHLT) is one of 80 land trusts in the state and according to the Maine Land Trust Network, Maine has one of the lowest percentages of government-owned lands in the country? This means land trusts are stepping in to conserve land and provide access to open spaces across the state. Like most land trusts, HHLT is strongly tied to the local community and works closely with the town government and private landowners to maintain miles of trails, protect forests, shorelines, and wildlife habitats for residents and visitors to enjoy for free.

brand new bog bridging on trail

The new trail at the Helen and Walter Norton Preserve on Birch Island (Julia McLeod photo)

Strategy. Planning. Generosity. These are just some of the things that go into private land becoming part of a land trust. In this three-part series, we will first explore the ways land can be conserved; followed by an example; and lastly, once a property with unique resources and ecological significance is under the stewardship of HHLT, how it is managed and maintained, and what it means for the public.

There are many reasons why landowners donate property or development rights to a property to a land trust. It could be because they love their land and want to protect it from future development, or because upkeep and real estate taxes have become burdensome. Regardless of the reason, it is a tremendous gift of generosity to all of us. But not all property is created equal. Lynn Knight, former HHLT president and long-time trustee, noted that animals need preserved land that is connected. Parcels of land with important natural resources, streams, waterfront, forests, and wildlife habitat are most desirable for conservation. Only after careful consideration does HHLT and a willing landowner enter into an agreement for future conservation stewardship.

There are several ways for privately-owned land to become protected. For example, HHLT can purchase land; accept or raise funds to purchase land; accept land donations; accept the donation of a conservation easement; or purchase a conservation easement.
A conservation easement is a legally binding contract between a landowner and land trust (or other entity) that aligns conservation goals with a family’s wishes. It is used for land with or without buildings and may grant the right for the public to access and use the land for outdoor recreation. It is designed to protect unique or specific ecological or historical settings and typically prohibits future development. The land remains privately owned but is monitored by a land trust to uphold the restrictions agreed upon within the conservation easement agreement, and the restrictions continue with the land in perpetuity.

According to former HHLT President Dave Brown, whose family donated a conservation easement to HHLT, the process varies and takes time. This gift of generosity requires landowners to give up some rights to their property. And although it can reduce the resale value of the property, this loss may be offset by potential tax savings for the donor. Like the land itself, each situation is unique. Before entering into any agreement, consulting with qualified conservation planning professionals to help explain the advantages and disadvantages is highly recommended.

Successful conservation begins at the local level – in the home. HHLT is privileged to have under its stewardship exceptional preserves and parcels of land acquired through a variety of ways. The commitment to the protection and preservation of these wonderful gifts requires funding, time, and effort on the part of the HHLT board, staff, volunteers, and the community. The decision to permanently preserve a beloved parcel of land is a difficult one. And those who have made the choice to voluntarily safeguard the precious resources in our backyard directly contribute to protecting what is so special about our home.