Can You Build On Conservation Land? | Renew Method

Conservation lands tend to be incredibly beautiful and offer a lot of natural aesthetics, but can you build on these protected lands?

Building on conservation land is not as simple as building on normal private property, but it can be done.  You can build on lands with conservation easements within the regulations of the property, which can vary greatly depending on the type of easement that is in place on the land.

The prospect of building on conservation lands tends to grab the attention of many aspiring homeowners and real estate investors, as their aesthetic qualities tend to make for remarkable living spaces.  It’s becoming much more popular for private individuals to acquire properties located within designated conservation lands due to programs that allow people to responsibly develop in such areas.  With that being said, building your development project in a conservation area may prove to be quite a bit more challenging, as there tends to be much more oversight and guidelines associated with the land.  Let’s dive into how you can build on conservation land.

Conservation lands located within the United States are managed by either the United States Federal Government or individual State Governments, non-profit land trusts, as well as private individuals.  Before you commit to building on conservation land, you should always be fully aware of any restrictions associated with the property to ensure that you are not violating any laws.

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Conservation Lands You Can Build On

In the past, we have traditionally set up conservation lands to be pretty much free of any kind of development to ensure the protection of the local ecology of the area.  While this is still a standard association with conservation lands, the ability to acquire these properties is something that is becoming much more common.

This is great news for aspiring homeowners that want to live in a rural area that is closer to nature and is complemented by beautiful surrounding scenery, as one of the most common reasons that properties become classified as conservation lands is to protect the environmental qualities of the land.

Due to the expansion of conservation activism and mainstream environmental awareness, we are seeing more and more land parcels converted to conservation lands.  It’s important to note that while conservation lands are expanding, it does not mean that all of them are open for the public to acquire, as many of them are being converted solely for public outdoor recreation.

There are, however, a lot of ways to acquire conservation lands so that you can build the home of your dreams.  To do so effectively, you are going to want to understand more about the conservation lands that are open for private purchase and the process involved in acquiring them.

Conservation Easements

The most common way to acquire conservation land and begin your build is to find a property that has a conservation easement associated with it.  These properties are scattered throughout the United States and are the most straightforward for pursuing a development project on environmentally protected lands.

A conservation easement is a private property, which has been certified by a conservation appraiser as land that is worthy of environmental protection.  These properties vary across the board, as each type of property has specific types of qualities associated with it.

Before you begin hunting down conservation lands to build on, it’s wise to first consider what your ultimate goals are for your development, as this can make a huge difference in narrowing down your search.  The reason for this is that certain conservation easements will have significantly different aesthetic qualities, which will determine the overall look of your finished project.

In addition, you will find that conservation easements will vary greatly in allowing what you can actually end up building on the land. To understand this better, let’s take a look at the different types of conservation easements you will likely be reviewing.

Private Homeowner

It’s quite common to find conservation easements in place on the properties of private landowners.  This is generally due to the private property owner taking it upon themselves to go through an appraisal process to convert their unprotected property to conservation land.

The reason that landowners tend to do this is to give permanent protection on their valued lands from future developers that may disregard the ecological qualities of the property, as a conservation easement is generally something that cannot be reversed.

What you will likely find in this situation is that the private homeowner already has a residence set up on the property.  If that is the case, you shouldn’t have any issues remodeling or rebuilding the home that is in place on the property to your desired specs.  

What you should be wary of is any potential building limitations outside of the residential structure in place on the land, as this could either make or break your development ambitions.  To ensure that the conservation land is suitable for your building ideas, you should sit down with the private homeowner and take a careful look at any restrictions associated with the easement, as these vary from property to property.

If there are not any overbearing building restrictions associated with the conservation easement, you should be good to go to proceed with your development.

Land Trusts

The United States has plenty of organizations that specialize specifically in conservation easements.  The organizations are non-profit land trusts that acquire land for the purpose of environmental protection and conservation work.

You can think of these land trusts as real estate agents for conservation lands.  However, you will find that dealing with them is not always as straightforward as buying a house or acquiring private land from a real estate agency.  The reason for this is that these organizations were created with the intention of protecting lands and ensuring that anyone they trust to sell the land to has honest intentions for the property.

To acquire and build on conservation land from a land trust, you will first have to be vetted by the organization.  To continue this process you will need to speak to a representative of the trust either in person or over the phone for an interview.  During this interview, the representative will ask you about your intentions for the land and what your specific development projects are.

It’s during this stage that you will lay out the logistics of your build and the organization will review your development to confirm that it is in line with their environmental values and does not disrupt the property’s ecological qualities.  Here are some major land trusts located within the United States:

  • Land Trust Alliance
  • Nature Conservancy
  • The Conservation Fund
  • Wilderness Land Trust

If your building project is approved, you will be able to sign off on the land and begin developing your building project.  You should, however, make sure that you adhere to the restrictions and guidelines of the conservation easement of the land trust, as they will check up on your property periodically to ensure that you are not violating the easement.

Farmland

Another type of land that often falls under a conservation easement within the United States is farmland.  Protecting our nation’s farmland through conservation easements has historic roots, as it has been backed by the government for nearly a century.  Prior to the concept of easements, the United States government already gave a lot of incentives to farmers for protecting their land and leaving it specifically designated for food growing purposes.

This concept was expanded by the government and non-profit land trusts with the popularization of conservation easements.  While the easements in place on farmlands tend to be much more specific with their restrictions, it is still possible to build on them given the right circumstances.

The way you will approach buying farmland that has a conservation easement associated with it is through a private farm owner or through a land trust that specializes in farmland.  You will find that most conservation easements on farmland are set up specifically for agricultural reasons and are not intended for versatile developments.

However, building a home and specific structures on the property may still be a very realistic prospect.  Many farmers still have their private residences attached to their property and if you can prove that your building project is for your own home and does not violate any of the restrictions associated with the easement, you should not have any issues pursuing your build.

In addition, conservation easements on farmland tend to be much more accepting of additional structures that may be prohibited on other properties such as barns and sheds.  So long as any additional structures you build are for the benefit of the farm, you should get a green light from your land trust or easement authority.

You may also get involved in a land trust for farmland directly through the United States Government by contacting the Agricultural Farmland Easement Program.

Property Conversion

If you happen to have a very specific vision for your development project and are having a hard time locating your ideal plot of land through a land trust or private seller, you may want to take the initiative to convert a property on your own.

I will say that this will require a bit more footwork and paperwork to get you there, but it does come with a lot of perks.  Since conservation properties may be limited compared to all other options that you have on your market, it could pay to check out some private properties that have not yet been converted to conservation easements.

In this situation, you should consider what your ideal plot of land would look like for your build; what natural aesthetics it has, and what its environmental condition is.  This can prove to be a very versatile way to approach your build on conservation land, as you can cater your development to a much wider range of property options.

If you’ve found some properties that are worthy of review, an important note to keep in mind is whether the land will legitimately be worthy of conservation.  A good way to identify this is to look for common traits associated with environmentally protected areas such as lush natural surroundings or an abundance of wildlife.

Once you think you’ve found a property that meets these criteria, you can begin looking into a conversion process for the private land into conservation land.  Depending on your building ambitions, you may find that working with one land trust or appraisal organization will suit your development better.

The reason being is that some organizations either specialize in a very specific type of conservation or have extremely strict regulations in regards to development.  After going through a handful of interviews with various organizations, you should be able to find one that fits your building needs best and you can officially convert your property into conservation land.

You may find that by taking this approach, you are able to be much more flexible with the restrictions associated with your conservation easement and will likely experience much less red tap for your building project.

What You Should Consider

As we’ve mentioned above, conservation lands are a much more complicated plot of land to establish a building project on.  You will likely experience many more obstacles in the process, but through that, you will find that there are a lot of incredible benefits that come with owning conservation land for building the home of your dreams.

To prepare you for the best and the worst of what you may encounter, you should be aware of some of the responsibilities you will have as an owner of conservation lands and what building limitations you may encounter.

With that being said, you will find that these restrictions and land responsibilities will vary greatly from each conservation easement.  Before you commit to any property or any development project, you should always carefully review the restrictions of your easement or consult an associate that represents your land agreement.

Let’s dive into some of the important factors you should consider when building on conservation land.

Building Limitations

The most common drawback that comes with acquiring land with a conservation easement on it is the overwhelming amount of restrictions that can be associated with the property.  Given that the conservation easement was established to protect the ecological value of the land, there may be quite a lot that you can not do with the property in regard to your development projects.

With that being said, there are plenty of conservation easements out there that have very reasonable and often loose regulations that will not hinder your build.  

Unless you are a real estate tycoon hoping to acquire a lot of property to pursue an invasive development project, the chances of you experiencing serious land restrictions should not be a major concern, as most conservation easements were created to prevent large-scale developments.

Let’s dive into some of the building restrictions you may experience on your conservation lands.

Additional Buildings & Structures

A common restriction associated with conservation easements is to prohibit additional buildings and structures from being put up.  

The layout of most private residences that have conservation easements in place generally allows for a very specific area that is allowed to have buildings set up, which may also determine how large they can be.

This means that if you were hoping to build additional housing units or any additional living spaces on the property, you may be out of luck.  In addition, there may also be limitations on smaller structures such as sheds and storage facilities on the property.

This can be particularly annoying for a property owner who bought conservation land with a very large property, as it can feel like you have plenty of unused space on your land.  With that being said, always check the guidelines of your conservation easement to see what kind of buildings and structures you are permitted to put up, as it may well be the case that your land has more flexibility with this.

Commercial Use

One of the primary reasons why conservation easements are in place on designated properties is to limit or completely eliminate commercial businesses from taking over the land and sabotaging the local environment.

You will find that establishing just about any kind of business is not very realistic on conservation lands.  This will particularly be the case for businesses within the industrial complex as well as corporations given that they tend to bring a major environmental footprint with them.

With that being said, you may still find a way to set up a business on your conservation land, given the right circumstances.  If you acquired conservation land and want to build a private business on your property, you could potentially do so, as long as you are building in line with the guidelines of your easement.  

As mentioned above, farming is one of the most common types of conservation easements that are in use and can easily be set up on conservation land given the type of terrain.  In addition, other non-invasive business prospects that do not violate the environmental protocols of your land could also be pursued.

To ensure that your business does not go against your easement, it is always best to review your agreement or consult a representative of your land.

Property Division

Many land investors, whether they are associated with a real estate investment group or are doing so independently, acquire large parcels of land to divide them and sell them off on their own.

This is something that you will likely not be allowed to do on your conservation land.  One of the key features of conservation easements is that the property is protected permanently from any kind of invasive development.  Given that property divisions entail independent buyers and likely additional builds, you will not be able to achieve this on conservation lands.

The primary reason that easements have this sort of guideline in place is to prevent real estate investors from buying up cheap land with ecological value who then set up multiple housing units.

While conservation easements already tend to steer away land investors, this may also be problematic for some independent homeowners, as this can be a limitation on building ideas and future investment opportunities.  Regardless of your stake in your conservation land, property division tends to be a pretty black and white issue.

There is a possibility that you can amend the easement associated with your conservation land to pursue such a building prospect, but the process can be lengthy and require a lot of paperwork.  The best way to do so is to get in touch with your local state or easement representative to consult the logistics of dividing your property.

Property Value

A key feature of properties with conservation easements, which tends to catch the eye of many land investors and aspiring homeowners is the price tag associated with these lands.  The market value for lands with conservation easements is considerably lower than that of standard private properties.

This is due to the restrictions associated with the easement in place on the land.  While these restrictions tend to limit specific types of development projects, they can make building the home of your dreams a much more realistic possibility.  The reason being is that you can avoid wasting your money on an expensive plot of land and instead focus on investing your savings into the home itself.

This can make building a home on conservation land especially cost-efficient and attainable for people who have a smaller budget for their land.  This does, however, usually not appeal to most people that aim to profit off of the development of their conservation land, as the market value will still be considerably lower than if they had built on a normal private property.

Building Responsibilities

The reason why there can be so many restrictions in place on a plot of conservation land is that owning such a property comes with a sense of personal responsibility for the owner to take care of the land.

Since environmental values and standards are higher than ever, conservation lands are looked after carefully and conscientiously.  With that being said, the conservation easement organization that helps manage your land will hold you accountable for certain responsibilities to maintain the ecology of your property by monitoring how you take care of your land and what you build on it.

By responsibly adhering to the guidelines of your build you can ensure that the environmental qualities of your land stay intact.  This is something you should carefully approach, as a failure to take care of your land within the restrictions of your easement by either building invasive developments or violating your agreement could result in penalties and even legal action.

Here are some of the responsibilities that will likely be associated with your conservation land.

Habitat Protection

A key area of focus of all conservation work is to protect habitats and local species.  Given that many conservation easements were set up to protect wildlife and their wellbeing, you are going to want to ensure that nothing you build jeopardizes their livelihoods.

With that being said, it’s always good to be familiar with the habitat of your conservation land such as the current condition of surrounding ecosystems, the types of wildlife that live in your area, as well as any plant and animal species that may be at-risk or endangered.

Having a clear understanding of your local environment could help eliminate any harm that your building projects could cause to the surrounding ecosystem.  It’s for this reason that conservation easements generally have very specific restrictions regarding what you can build and where you can build it.

You will likely find that your easement also gives very specific guidelines about how you can manage your surrounding vegetation such as removing:

  • Trees
  • Shrubs
  • Fauna

As you pursue your build, take note of any valued environmental elements of your property that your development may interfere with.

Resource Management

Invasive building tends to greatly sabotage a lot of our nation’s natural resources, which not only harms habitat but also prevents us from utilizing them for our own needs.

You may find that one of the primary reasons that your conservation land has an easement in place on it is to prevent harm from being done to a vital resource in your area.  Before you begin building, have a clear understanding of your property’s natural resources and begin developing in a way that will not cause damage to them.

One of the most common resources that conservation easements protect is freshwater channels.  If your property has a stream, river, pond, or lake, you should be especially mindful with your build to ensure that no form of pollution is entering the freshwater channel.

In addition, an important natural resource that can be damaged during building or development is soil.  Soil infertility has been a crucial land resource that has been subjected to land degradation.  

This is generally caused by poor farming practices, which is why you should prioritize following responsible farming techniques, if that’s your intended land use.  

About THE AUTHOR

James Parker

James Parker

James Parker has a Masters degree in Sustainability with a focus on land management, permaculture and regenerative agriculture. He also has experience managing sustainability projects, and is passionate about conservation and sustainability.

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