Conservation easements

Woodland pond covered in water lilies

Conservation easements are legal agreements designed to conserve open space, water recharge areas, environmentally sensitive lands, wildlife habitat or historic features on a specific parcel of land.

These agreements come under the jurisdiction of the St. Johns River Water Management District through donation or sale of property to the district, or are proposed to offset environmental impacts from development and, in these instances, are a required component of a mitigation plan for a permit issued by the district.

Most land developments, including residential subdivisions, require permits from the district to ensure the development will not cause flooding, degrade water bodies, or adversely impact wetlands or other natural resources. To protect wetlands or to offset impacts from permitted construction projects, the wetlands that remain on a permitted property, along with natural areas bordering them, often are placed in a conservation easement. Frequently, these easements are located on or behind future home lots.

 As legal documents, voluntary and regulatory conservation easements are recorded in the public records of the county in which the property is located.

To discuss donating or selling a conservation easement to the district, contact the district’s Real Estate Services Program at 386-329-4335. For questions about easements established for mitigation purposes, contact the local coordinator listed in the permitting contacts or call the district’s Division of Regulatory Services at 386-329‑4570.

Learn more about conservation easement in our FAQs.

Frequently asked questions

Conservation easements are perpetual. They are transferred with the land from owner to owner when the property is sold and remain enforceable after the issuance of a tax deed. Easements may be specifically tailored to meet the needs of both the landowner and the district.

Florida is a state with an environment like no other. Marshes, rivers, lakes and sparkling springs dot the Florida landscape, attracting visitors and new residents every day. As Florida’s population increases, so does development. Through the use of conservation easements, landowners and the district are preserving land and protecting water resources.

Conservation easements give the district certain, specific rights to the property, but do not grant outright land ownership to the district. Through the easement, the landowner retains title to the land but gives up certain rights or uses. Many times, the restrictions imposed by the easement safeguard the land by prohibiting the construction of buildings or other structures, excavating soil, or removing or destroying trees (except hazardous trees) or native vegetation. For example, a cattle rancher may enter into a conservation easement agreement whereby he or she continues to ranch under certain mutually agreed upon conditions and practices but relinquishes the right to extract minerals or develop residential communities on the property.

The landowner retains fee ownership of the land and all rights associated with the property not specifically relinquished in the conservation easement. Any use that does not conflict with the purpose and terms of the easement is permissible, including selling the land and bequeathing it by will. The landowner’s responsibilities include those specified in the easement. The payment of property taxes is still a responsibility of the landowner, but a reduction in that amount is one of the possible tax benefits available to landowners.

The district has the right to make sure that the conditions defined in the conservation easement are followed. The district has the right to access the land for inspections or other reasons established in the terms and conditions of the conservation easement document. If the terms of the easement are violated, the district has the right to seek enforcement remedies.

Any conservation easements recorded in public records prior to the purchase of your property will be included in the title search. Because an easement is recorded in public records, the public, including landowners, are put on notice that the easement exists. The conservation easement document or the recorded plat for your subdivision should contain a legal description and sketch, showing the location and dimensions of the preserved area on your property. While the boundary of a conservation easement may be permanently marked with survey posts or stakes, as with any property boundary, only a survey by a certified land surveyor can accurately delineate the boundary of a conservation easement.

If the conservation easement was donated to the district for mitigation, the permittee should consult with district staff to prepare a management plan to maintain water resource and habitat values for the specific property. This may include the use of prescribed fire or roller chopping to remove undergrowth to reduce the risk of wildfire or the use of herbicides to remove exotic plants. Specifics will be listed in a written document such as a permit or letter from the district.

Otherwise, management of the property may be governed by a district land management plan.

Conservation easements usually prohibit the destruction, clearing or trimming of any vegetation within the easement area. An exception to this is the removal of exotic or nuisance plants. At times, these plants can be removed as part of a site-specific management plan. The district can help you identify exotic or nuisance plants. In addition, information about exotic and nuisance plants can be found on the websites of the Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council and the University of South Florida’s Atlas of Florida Vascular Plants.

If a dead or damaged tree poses a hazard to a residence, the hazardous trees may be removed by the property owner.  If the tree is not considered hazardous, dead trees and other vegetation do provide habitat for wildlife so it may be more beneficial to cut the tree and allow it to decompose in the conservation easement area. If you have a non-hazardous dead or dying tree that you would like to cut down or remove, please contact the local coordinator listed in the permitting contacts or call the district’s Division of Regulatory Services at 386-329‑4570.

Adding materials, such as constructing a trail, or removing soil, rock, mulch or other materials, or removing vegetation, is generally prohibited in conservation easements.

Construction of boardwalks or piers is allowed only if the easement’s legal records specifically state the right and that right is retained by the landowner.

Typically, conservation easements do not grant the right of public access.

Protection of a conservation easement area is the responsibility of the property owner, or whoever performs the maintenance. The district is not the landowner and is not responsible for maintaining the conservation easement. However, the district does monitor the status of conservation areas to ensure they are being maintained in accordance with the provisions of the agreement.

If you do not know who is responsible for the maintenance of a conservation easement where you live, the district recommends you contact the homeowner’s association, which is often the responsible party.

The district realizes that the majority of homeowners understand the importance of conservation easements for protecting Florida’s natural environment, and many are willing to work together to resolve problems arising from unauthorized activities. However, because certain property rights to a conservation easement are given to the district, the district may take the necessary means to protect a property with a conservation easement and the natural resources found there. The courts can force those who violate conditions of an easement to restore the damaged property and pay fines or penalties for damaging the property.

Conservation easements may provide some economic benefits to the adjacent landowners. In fact, studies suggest that properties located near preserved lands retain their value better than properties that are not located near preserved lands.

Landowners may also receive certain tax advantages for entering into a conservation easement. When making a land donation for a qualified conservation purpose, federal income tax deductions can be made. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) regulations require the property to have significant conservation values, and the property must meet IRS tax code provisions. Savings in estate taxes can be made when passing on land protected by a conservation easement. Though the payment of property taxes is still a responsibility of the landowner, a reduction in that amount is a possible tax benefit. The district recommends that landowners seek professional tax counsel to determine the tax benefits for donating an easement.

From time to time, property owners may ask the district to consider accepting mitigation credits or another piece of property in exchange for releasing a regulatory conservation easement. The district has about 190,000 acres of wetlands and uplands under regulatory conservation easements (through the end of 2018), with exchanges of land or mitigation credits involving a very small fraction (less than 1 percent) of all easements.

While Florida Statutes define acceptance of mitigation credits or other land as a “release,” the term can be confusing. The process district staff utilize to determine whether to recommend approval or denial of a request for a regulatory conservation easement release is rigorous and the end result is that the district would receive an exchange of property that has an equal or greater ecological value than the property being released, or the  requestor would purchase mitigation credits that provide equal or greater ecological value in exchange for the release.

To determine if the district should consider an exchange of land or mitigation credits, the district uses the provisions established in Florida law. Requests are evaluated through Florida’s Uniform Mitigation Assessment Methodology (UMAM) process, which determines the ecological value of an easement and of the potential traded property. The burden is on the applicant who requests the exchange to provide analysis and justification for the action. The district will not release the easement unless the exchange is favorable to the district.

As part of the evaluation process, district staff work with an applicant to obtain an exchange to meet statutory requirements.

If an exchange or mitigation credit proposal is deemed appropriate by staff, they recommend action to the district’s Governing Board and the recommendation would appear on the board’s public meeting agenda.

A site-specific management plan can be developed for properties within a conservation easement that supports the natural habitat type and location of the property. A property owner should consult district staff to prepare a site-specific plan and obtain written approval prior to any management activity within a conservation easement. The approved plan will provide details on the type of activity allowed and the frequency that the management activity should be conducted, as well as the expiration date of the plan. For additional information about reducing the risk of wildfire in a conservation easement, visit our “wildfire risk reduction in district conservation easements” webpage.