Land Acquisition Professionals

Depending on the land trust, land acquisition may be one person's entire job, or it may be one task among many for an executive director or other employee. Larger, well-funded land trusts and national land trust organizations are most likely to have acquisitions professionals devoted solely to handling land transactions. In smaller organizations, one person may do everything from land acquisition to fund-raising.

In any case, a group wishing to save some land or water has important questions to answer. Who owns it? Would they be willing to donate the land? If not, will they sell it? For how much? Who'll pay for it? Will a public agency buy it? Could a community group raise the needed funds?

A land trust can check with the local government to see if it is interested in helping to acquire the land. If that does not work, the trust can act on its own, trying to talk the landowner into selling or donating the land, for example. Or it can turn to big groups like the Land Trust Alliance, The Nature Conservancy, or Trust for Public Land (TPL) for help. At TPL, for example, project managers are available to help coordinate acquisitions efforts for other land trusts.

Generally, acquisitions involve either buying the land outright, acquiring development rights to it, obtaining easements, or getting landowners to donate the land or leave it to the land trust in their wills. Such negotiations usually do not go through the courts, but they do go through a type of legal process that is similar in some ways to buying a house. This usually involves having the land appraised and getting the title or deed to the property. After these tasks are accomplished, the land then becomes the property of the land trust.

For land donations, nonprofits offer certain advantages to landowners over donating to government or quasi-government groups. Generally, anything donated to a nonprofit is tax deductible. Large landowners may gain certain additional tax benefits by willing the land to a nonprofit when the landowner dies.

In general, most government agencies are not set up to receive donations of land. Landowners also may like the nonprofits' conservation emphasis and may not like the idea of donating their land to the government.

Instead of selling, donating, or willing the land, landowners might instead agree to easements that effectively put part of the land off-limits to development, subdivision, or other actions that might threaten preservation. For example, a large paper company recently agreed to give TNC agricultural and environmental easements on property the paper company owns near Richmond, Virginia, on which stands the oldest working farm in America. As with a land donation, the farmer or landowner who agrees to the easement gets some kind of tax break. In addition to the tax break, the landowner has the pleasure of doing something for the environment as well.

How does the land trust decide what land or water it wants to try to save? That varies widely. Sometimes, it is a matter of wanting to make sure there is park area in a new residential development. Sometimes the issues are larger. TNC, for example, emphasizes acquiring areas where there is a threat to a natural community. This may involve endangered species, but TNC also thinks in terms of "rare" and "relatively rare" species, and of the uniqueness of the land—saving areas representing the best of their kind, such as the best oak hardwood forests, for example. Databases help keep track of such efforts.

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