Land Trusts

What Are Land Trusts?

Land trusts are organizations that work with landowners to conserve land. Land trusts are typically nonprofits, also known as charitable organizations or 501(c)(3)s. Land trusts work with landowners interested in protecting land from certain development. Land trusts exist at all scales from very small to very big. Smaller land trusts are staffed by volunteers, while larger land trusts have employees.

Land trusts work cooperatively with landowners to make arrangements for conservation, sometimes purchasing property interests, and sometimes accepting donations of those interests. Land trusts also work to ensure that land previously acquired or placed under a conservation easement continues to be properly protected. Also, in the rare circumstance that land is not properly protected, land trusts work to fix that problem.

What Do Land Trusts Protect?

Conservation can take many different forms and be for many different purposes. Some conservation purposes include protecting natural habitat, water quality, or scenic views, ensuring that the land is available for farming, forestry, or outdoor recreational use, or protecting other values provided by open land. Land trusts also conserve working farms, historic farms, forests, and other open spaces.

Legal Tools of the Land Trust Trade

To achieve conservation, land trusts can own land and can restrict the use of that land. Alternatively, land trusts can own other interests in land. These interests include conservation easements, affirmative agricultural easements, options to purchase at agricultural value (OPAVs), and more.

In addition to traditional conservation projects, land trusts can promote conservation in innovative ways, such as:

  • Initiate rural and urban agricultural projects, like incubator farms or community gardens
  • Promote commercial spaces to serve local communities
  • Establish affordable rental and cooperative housing projects
  • Conserve land or urban green space

Learn more about how farmers work with land trusts through these real-world farmer stories:

Types of Land Trusts

Land trusts come in different varieties, including conservation land trusts, preservation trusts, community land trusts, and more. Government entities, either on their own or in partnership with a land trust, can also be the holder of easements to protect and conserve farmland.

Conservation Land Trusts

A conservation land trust is an organization that establishes ownership for the purpose of making sure land stays undeveloped and protected for future generations. The two basic ways conservation land trusts use to do this are 1) purchasing land or 2) purchasing a conservation easement on land.

Some examples of conservation land trusts and related organizations mentioned in this toolkit include:

  • Tompkins Conservation – California-based land trust dedicated to protecting the ecology and wildlife of parks and forests on a long-term basis.
  • Vermont Land Trust – Vermont-based land trust that saves the land that makes Vermont special, including farmland and forest.
  • Equity Trust – Massachusetts-based land trust that is small but national and is committed to changing the spirit and character of our material relationships.
  • Peninsula Open Space Trust – Protecting and caring for open space in and around Silicon Valley.
  • Middlebury Land Trust – Connecticut land trust to help preserve Middlebury, Connecticut’s natural areas for future generations.
  • Eddy Foundation – Works in New York, California, and the Dominican Republic to preserve open space for the welfare of all human citizens and all plants and animals.
  • Mount Grace Conservation Land Trust – Massachusetts-based regional land trust that serves 23 towns in Worcester and Franklin counties, supported by 1,200 members and by private, state, and federal grants, protects significant natural, agricultural, and scenic areas, and encourages land stewardship in Massachusetts for the benefit of the environment, the economy, and future generations.
  • Yggdrasil Land Foundation – National land trust that protects sustainable and biodynamic farmland, creates land access for farmers, and cultivates agriculture-based regional economies.
  • Land Trust Alliance – A group of land trusts across the nation devoted to promoting the health and well-being of land for places to play and exercise, build community, and connect with nature.

Community Land Trusts

A community land trust (CLT) is very similar to a conservation land trust, except that the land ownership is by and for the community, rather than by and for an individual landowner. Community land trusts are led by community residents and public representatives. In the farming context, community land trusts generally work to ensure community stewardship of land by ensuring permanent access, control, affordability, and stewardship of the land for the community and future generations.

To achieve permanent community access to land, community land trusts generally use the same tools as a conservation land trust: full ownership, conservation easements, options, other types of easements, and more. Community land trusts are designed to ensure land is used to benefit the local community where that land is located. In the farming context, community access to farmland owned by a community land trust is generally provided to farmers through a lease.

Examples of community land trusts include:

  • Berkshire Community Land Trust – Owns and leases land for community homes, farms, and businesses.
  • National Community Land Trust Network – Group of community land trusts that promote strategic community development and permanently affordable housing to benefit lower-income families.
  • Southside Community Land Trust – Serves people in economically-challenged urban neighborhoods where fresh produce is scarce, who, as a result, are at risk for life-threatening diet-related chronic diseases.

Government Partnerships With Farmers And Land Trusts

At the local, state, and federal levels, government agencies can also be holders of farm-related easements, either as a government entity or in partnership with a land trust organization. Government-held easements can be on private property; governments can also lease government-owned land to farmers directly. Real-world examples include:

Examples of Farmers Working With Land Trusts

Success Story:

Full and By Farm

When James Graves and Sara Kurak of Full and By Farm first found their property in Essex, New York, it was owned by the nonprofit Eddy Foundation and would have been too expensive for James and Sara to purchase at market price. To make the land affordable, the Eddy Foundation sold 100 acres to James and Sara but simultaneously purchased a conservation easement on those 100 acres, reducing the net cost to James and Sara and fulfilling the Foundation’s conservation goals. Learn more about Full and By Farm and the process of negotiating conservation easement terms here.

Success Story:

Greenfield Berry Farm

The Countryside Initiative Program is a program of the Countryside Conservancy, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the rural character of the Cuyahoga Valley in Cuyahoga, Ohio. The Countryside Conservancy partnered with Cuyahoga Valley National Park to create the program, which acts as a matchmaker between farmers and farmland in Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

The farmland in the park is leased by the National Park Service to farmers who are committed to sustainable agriculture and responsible stewardship of the land. There are currently nine farms on the park, including Greenfield Berry Farm, a pick-your-own berry farm owned and operated by Daniel and Michele Greenfield. Learn more about how Daniel and Michele worked with the federal government and the Countryside Initiative Program to access land here.

Potential Land Trust Challenges

Although working with land trusts can be beneficial for farmers, landowners and land-seekers should be aware that working with land trusts has its challenges.

  • Working with a land trust to secure a conservation easement or other conservation tool can be complex, time-consuming, and costly.
  • Landowners who own farmland with a bank mortgage on the property may have difficulty working with a land trust.
  • Land trusts and farmers may not share a common mission. For example, a land trust dedicated to preserving wildlife may not be a good match to conserve a working farm.

How An Attorney Can Help

The Attorney’s Role

It’s not an attorney’s job to make decisions for farmers or to set farm transfer goals. Instead, attorneys can provide information about pros and cons of different options, advice about what is common versus unusual, fair versus unfair, etc. Attorneys can help farmers understand the range of possible farm transfer goals and help narrow down individual options so that farmers can make final decisions.

How An Attorney Can Help With Land Trusts

  • Negotiate an easement or OPAV sale or donation to a land trust.
  • Review or draft easement sale or donation documents.
  • Explain the pros and cons of a land trust deal.
  • Create a strategy for combining a land trust deal with other transfer or conservation tools.
  • Help farmers understand the possible tax implications of donating or selling an easement to a land trust.

Additional Resources

Related Legal Tools

Conservation Easements
Raise funds, provide access for new farmers, and protect farmland.
Affirmative Agricultural Easements
Keep the land in farming and owned by farmers.
A new way to raise funds and make farmland more affordable.

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