The Bluegrass Conservancy reached an important milestone recently—10,000 acres of farmland protected from future commercial development in Central Kentucky. This means that a substantial chunk of land being used for agriculture today will continue to be used for agriculture by future generations. This is good news for those of us who value the area’s horse farms and general rural character, bad news for fans of housing developments, shopping malls, and urban sprawl.

How did this happen? Based in Lexington, Kentucky, the Bluegrass Conservancy is a private, not-for-profit land trust that for the last 15 years has encouraged area land owners to donate conservation easements for their property. There can be immediate and long-term benefits for the land owners and for their communities.

In general terms, an easement arises when the owner of land gives someone else, either an individual, organization, or a business, some right to use the land. A utility easement, which gives the local water company the right to go onto a homeowner’s property to maintain water pipes, is a good example. A conservation easement is a specific legal agreement between a land owner and a land trust (such as the Bluegrass Conservancy) in which the land owner gives up the right to develop the land for non-agricultural or other commercial purposes.

A conservation easement does two things: it guarantees that the land will not be developed commercially while giving the land trust the right to take legal action to enforce the non-development pledge. The land owner makes a promise, in other words, and the land trust ensures that the promise is kept by future owners. Conservation easements can be used to protect farm land, historic and scenic areas, and natural resources.

A conservation easement does not transfer ownership of the property to the land trust. It merely gives the land trust a legally protected interest in how the property will be used in the future. Conservation easements bind the current owner of the property, as well as future owners. Each conservation easement is unique, and an agreement can—and should—be tailored to address the specific concerns of the land owner. An easement can cover an entire piece of property, for example, or only a portion of the land, depending on the owner’s wishes and needs.

Benefits to the land owner are both tangible and intangible. Donating an easement can result in significant reductions in income taxes, estate taxes, and property taxes. What may be more important, though, is the knowledge that there will not be a strip mall or string of apartment buildings built on the land in the future.

The Bluegrass Conservancy is a private land trust relying on grants and donations, but there also are public agencies that protect agricultural land. In Central Kentucky, for example, the Lexington-Fayette County Urban Government uses public funds to purchase development rights from land owners.

If there are private land trusts or development rights purchase programs in your area, support them. If you own agricultural land, consider a conservation easement. One source for state-specific information on conservation easements and land trusts is the American Farmland Trust.