Frequently Asked Questions
What was the impetus for creating an Open Lands Program in Lewis and Clark County?
On November 4, 2008 voters in Lewis and Clark County approved a $10 million general obligation bond measure for “…preserving open space in the County, including working lands and land for protecting water and wildlife, by providing funds to acquire conservation easements or other property interests from willing sellers for the following purposes: protecting drinking water sources and ground water quality; protecting water quality in and along rivers and streams; conserving working farm, ranch and forest lands; protecting wildlife areas; preserving open lands and natural areas; providing for recreation; and managing growth and development.”
The bond was one recommendation from the Heritage Lands Working Group. Please see the report at left.
Will the County buy land with the bond funds?
The preference of the County Commission is to use permanent conservation easements to achieve the purposes of the bond measure rather than buying land outright. However, in exceptional circumstances, the Program may consider purchasing land or providing funding for land purchases by other entities, if this type of transaction best addresses the public’s interests and a landowner’s needs.
What is a conservation easement?
A conservation easement is a voluntary yet legally binding and recorded agreement by which landowners may restrict select uses of their land to achieve protection of certain delineated conservation values. Landowner(s) continue to retain private ownership and may sell, gift or transfer the property with a conservation easement in effect.
Conservation easements typically protect open space, wildlife, fisheries, water quality or preserve valuable ranch and farm properties. Conservation easements remain in effect when the property is sold or passed to the next generation. A conservation easement may be sold, donated or partially sold and partially donated by a landowner.
Private lands remain in private ownership. The terms of the conservation easement may have requirements, such as keeping riparian areas intact or when and how to harvest timber.
As conservation easements usually have a value attached to them, they can be donated and/or purchased. Donating conservation easements may provide income or estate tax benefits. However, landowners must continue to pay Montana property taxes.
Are conservation easements new in Lewis and Clark County?
No, landowners in Lewis and Clark County have utilized conservation easements for many years. There are over 93,000 acres held in conservation easements in the county currently.
However, the Lewis and Clark County Open Lands Program is new. It is a result of the passage of the 2008 Open Lands Bond. The first program application was received in July, 2010.
Why do landowners put conservation easements on their property?
Conservation easements protect land for future generations while allowing owners to retain many private property rights and continue traditional uses such as farming, ranching, forestry, hunting and fishing.
Landowners may receive compensation for qualified conservation easements from Lewis and Clark County Open Lands Program and/or may be able to qualify for certain income and estate tax benefits. Additionally, conservation easements can be useful and valuable estate planning tools. Many landowners simply wish to see specific attributes of their property protected such as wildlife habitat, and not want to see their land subdivided or inappropriately developed. No two conservation easements are alike. Each is tailored to accomplish the landowner’s specific desires.
How is the value of a conservation easement determined?
The value of each proposed Lewis and Clark County Open Space Program conservation easement will be determined by an appraisal completed by a certified appraiser qualified to appraise conservation easements. Generally the way conservation easement value is determined by the appraiser is the market value of the property before easement minus the market value of the property after easement execution. The difference between the two market values is the value of the conservation easement. Once appraised, the purchase price is determined by the Lewis and Clark County Commission.
What is public access?
Public access can have different meaning to different people. For example, limited access on a defined trail across the easement property to reach a historic site on adjacent lands would provide partial access. Further, that access could be limited in time, perhaps only during certain times or seasons. Hunting access or fishing access to portions of the ranch during specific months and specific hours may be included. That access could, for example, preclude camping, fires and motorized vehicles. Because each conservation easement is tailored to the landowners’ desires, there is great flexibility in addressing public access if so desired.
Is public access required?
No. Public access is not a requirement of the Lewis and Clark County Open Lands program. The decision to open conservation easements lands to public access is the decision of the landowner. Though public access is not required, if the landowner so desires, it can be included. “Providing for Recreation” is one of the goals of the bond resolution. Projects that propose access in some form will generally receive a higher appraisal value and may be viewed more favorably during the decision process.
How will the county make sure that conserved lands will be properly maintained?
The conservation easement includes restrictions to protect the conservation values of the property in perpetuity. The terms of those restrictions will provide safeguards to ensure that the land will always be preserved in accordance with the goals of the landowner and the county Open Lands Program. Easement terms or restrictions are voluntarily entered into by the landowner, and are monitored and enforced by a qualified organization or agency.
How do I apply and where can I get more information?
The Open Lands Program is headquartered in the Community Development & Planning Department in the City/County Building, 316 N. Park Ave., Helena, Montana 59623.
More information about conservation easements can be found at http://www.landtrustalliance.org/.