STARTING THE LAND PROTECTION PROCESS: A Few Baby Steps for Forest (and Farm) Owners
– by Steve Broderick
As Connecticut’s Extension Forester, it’s been my privilege to meet many hundreds of forest landowners. Over time, many of them have come to love their land, and would love to know it will remain undeveloped after they’re gone.
Some landowners feel secure because they have a valid, up-to-date will. But the fact is that a simple will, which leaves everything to a surviving spouse or equally divided among heirs, may actually be the wrong thing for everyone involved. In the worst case it can waste thousands of dollars in available tax savings and leave a difficult tax-planning dilemma in the hands of surviving family members. It can even force heirs to sell property against their wishes.
A good family land protection plan will nearly always require professional assistance at some point in the process. But that doesn’t mean you should walk into an attorney’s office tomorrow and cry “Help!” By working through a few simple steps before seeking assistance, you can both save money and help ensure that your family lands protection plan accomplishes exactly what you want it to.
I’ve been involved in many, many land protection workshops over the years. Attorneys, insurance experts, foresters and others have given excellent presentations, and hundreds of intelligent and acutely interested landowners have listened intently. And yet, often enough, at least some of those landowners have walked out the door saying, “That was great, but I’m not really sure what to do next.” So if you’re a forest owner, or you know one you can hand this to, here for your (or their) consideration are Broderick’s five simple steps for starting a family lands protection plan:
STEP 1: Get specific. What is it exactly that you want preserved for future generations? Try to think in terms of specific protection goals, such as protecting habitat for wildlife, preserving a scenic vista, and/or sustaining a working farm. Some additional questions to ask yourself include:
- Do you want an heir or heirs to someday own it, or do you prefer that a land trust or conservation organization own it?
- Do you want to retain the land and exclusive use of it for your lifetime?
- Do you want the public to be able to enjoy your land, or do you want it to remain private?
STEP 2 – Talk about this with the family. This isn’t necessary for everyone, but is absolutely essential for many. Many a land protection effort has failed, or never gotten off the ground, because family members either didn’t communicate or couldn’t agree. At some point, we all must face our own mortality. There is nothing unseemly or morbid about having these discussions, but breaking the ice can be difficult.
STEP 3 – Take stock of what you have. People who own thousands of dollars worth of stocks or bonds usually keep fairly close track of them. Yet it’s always amazed me how these very same people can own tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of land and timber, and yet know almost nothing about it. If you don’t know where your boundaries are, that’s a good place to start. This doesn’t necessarily mean an expensive survey. If abutters agree on boundary location, and they record an accurate description on their deeds, that’s usually all that matters.
STEP 4: Learn a few basics about land protection tools and options. Our Wolf Den Land Trust, and my own agency, the UConn Cooperative Extension System, have plenty of information that’s just a phone call or e-mail away.
Perhaps the single most important land protection concept to understand is the separable rights concept. Simply put, owning land means owning lots of individual, and separable, rights: the right to till the soil, to hunt, to fish, to cut timber, to subdivide and build, etc, etc. As a landowner you have the right to remove one or more of these rights from the rest. You can sell it, give it away, or extinguish it altogether. A farmer selling his/her development rights to the state Department of Agriculture is a good example of this. The farmer still owns every other right he/she always had, but has chosen to remove and sell that particular one.
STEP 5: Connect with Local Support Groups. Let’s assume you’ve thought through these four steps. You’re working on the ones you feel you need to, and you’re developing some vague sense of what your land protection goals and methods might be. If you haven’t already, now it’s time to make some contacts. Which contacts you make, and in what order, are up to you. Some to think about include:
THE WOLF DEN LAND TRUST
Land trusts like ours are non-profit organizations that exist to permanently protect and care for open space. They can help you explore land protection funding programs, locate good legal assistance, etc.
Your town Conservation Commission. In many towns these Commissions can work with you and the local land trust to help you realize your land protection goals. Your town clerk or annual town report can provide contact information.
A conservation attorney. If you have a good attorney that you like and trust, that’s great. But be aware that some attorneys (even those who advertise estate planning services) may not know much more than you do about the specialized needs and tax issues facing folks protecting land. If in doubt, ask one of the above for a recommendation.
STEP 6: Never forget that now is the time! I know, I said five steps. But this one sort of transcends the rest.
Contrary to popular belief, estate and land protection planning are not things to put off until just before you die. After twenty years in this business, I can assure you that simple procrastination is Enemy Number One when it comes to protecting family lands. There are at least three good reasons why now is the time to do your land protection planning:
If you should die unexpectedly without a plan, the state and/or your heirs will create one for you. Theirs may not look much like what yours would have.
Good planning can save land now, save you money now and save your heirs money later. You’re of sound mind at the moment. Who knows what tomorrow will bring?
Steve Broderick was an Extension Forester with the UConn Cooperative Extension System.
This article originally appeared in the September 2002 ECFLA/WDLT Newsletter.