Conservation easements are one of the main tools used by land trusts like the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust to protect the special natural values of land and important cultural or historic places. A conservation easement is a legally recorded agreement between a landowner or historic building owner and a qualified organization such as the Trust in which the landowner voluntarily restricts how his or her property may be used or changed. Easements are a flexible tool that can be individually tailored to a land or building owner’s needs to protect a wide variety of properties. Landowners have many reasons for choosing to do this, including:
- preserving open space and views on undeveloped or minimally developed land
- protecting wildlife and natural resources
- keeping land within the family
- protecting the architecture and setting of an historic structure
- obtaining tax benefits
Conservation easements are commonly given as a donation but may be purchased by the Trust in certain circumstances. For the HHLT to accept and hold an easement, there must be identifiable public benefits consistent with its purposes, such as preserving open space, valuable wildlife habitat, scenic vistas. historic buildings, or undeveloped shoreline. While public access is often highly desirable (and a great benefit for the community), it is not required as part of an easement.
Landowners retain all rights they have not specifically given up, including the right to sell their property. The easement protections, however, are permanent and apply to all future owners.
Some examples of easements held by the Trust are:
- A preservation easement to restore and maintain the setting and exterior of a house built around 1820. (Harpswell Neck, 1983)
- A conservation easement, allowing for development of a single residence, on 230 acres of privately owned land, including upland forest, significant fresh and salt water wetlands, and a mile of tidal shoreline. (Great Island, 1996)
- A conservation easement on a publicly owned lot at the head of Mackerel Cove to provide open space for commercial fishing and recreational activity. (Bailey Island, 1985)