Dean Saunders, ALC, CCIM, the founder and managing director of SVN | Saunders Ralston Dantzler Real Estate, began working with real estate conservation easements a quarter-century ago. Though more common now as a means of preserving land and protecting wildlife, at the time, the practice was far more limited.
“One of the interesting things about conservation easements is that 26 years ago when we started buying conservation easements in the state of Florida,” Saunders said. There really were very few agencies that did it.”
Saunders explained that the concept of an agreement between a landowner and the government to conserve land was new, and the federal government was not engaged in purchasing conservation easements on a broad scale. But the use of conservation easements has grown and developed since then.
Today there are two types of conservation easements Saunders assists clients with most often. These are the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) and Rural and Family Lands Protection Program (RFLPP) easements.
Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) Easement
Conservation easements can protect property in many ways. For example, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) uses conservation easements to restore wetlands with their Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) easements.
“That's really a restoration easement,” Saunders said of the WRP easement. “But it pays a greater value than just we're not going to develop an easement because now they're actually doing something to your property.”
According to Saunders, the USDA is reworking the WRP easements system to be a bit more restrictive. But, these types of easements bring more money to the landowner as a general rule.
“It's been just kind of fun watching the duration of those easements,” said Saunders.” And how they've progressed over time and how they're being used.”
Rural and Family Lands Protection Program (RFLPP) Easement
Florida created the Rural Family Lands Protection Program (RFLPP) easement in the early 2000s. The program protects agricultural land in the state of Florida from development for conservation purposes.
Saunders noted that the program has not been “aggressively funded.” In some annual state budgets, there is no funding set aside for the program at all.
“But since its inception, it's been used to target agricultural lands as opposed to just targeting environmentally sensitive lands,” Saunders said. “And there's a lot more ag land than there is environmentally sensitive land.”
Much of the state’s agricultural private land is next to state parks, forests, and open spaces. These lands provide wildlife viewing and connectivity for wildlife habitat “corridors,” an essential need in environmental protection.