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The PACE law includes provisions requiring local governments to think about and plan for the agricultural use of land in their communities and contains disincentives for removing land from agricultural use.
What is PACE and what is its status?
The Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easement (PACE) grant program was designed to provide funding to reimburse qualified entities -- land trusts or local governments -- for part of the purchase price of agricultural conservation easements from willing landowners. The Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection (DATCP) administered the program. There is currently no funding for this important statewide program, but Gathering Waters Conservancy, American Farmland Trust and other partners in farmland protection continue to advocate for a strong statewide PACE program in Wisconsin.
What is an agricultural conservation easement?
Agricultural conservation easements are permanent deed restrictions that landowners voluntarily place on their property to preserve the agricultural value of their land. The landowner continues to own and use the land, however the easement prevents the landowner from developing the protected land for nonagricultural purposes. Trough an agricultural conservation easement, the landowner essentially sells the right to develop the property. An agricultural conservation easement can enable a landowner to get some equity out of his property while still being able to farm the land.
How long does an agricultural conservation easement last?
Most agricultural conservation easements are perpetual. The easements run with the title to the property. In other words, the landowner may sell, bequeath, or otherwise transfer the land but all subsequent landowners are bound by the terms of the easement. Some programs allow agricultural conservation easements to last for a period of years. The Wisconsin program, however, will only fund easements that last forever.
What restrictions are found in a typical agreement?
Agricultural conservation easements purchased under the new law prevent landowners from subdividing or developing their land in a way that makes the land unavailable or unsuitable for agriculture. The easements attempt to balance the need to preserve the land for future agricultural use with the landowners’ need to make economic use of the land. As a result, the land use limitations in an agricultural conservation easement typically focus on prohibiting any use that is deemed inconsistent with farming. Such inconsistent uses might include non-farm housing or golf courses or paved parking lots. The landowner with restricted land would be able, however, to build structures for housing farm equipment or for sheltering livestock.
Are all conservation easements the same?
Typically, no. There are general restrictions found in most easements that will prohibit a landowner from using the land in a way that makes it unavailable for agriculture. The exact terms of each agreement, however, are typically negotiated between the parties involved. Generally, easements are flexible documents that can be tailored to the characteristics of a particular property.
If I limit the uses on my land now and times change, will I be prevented from adapting to those changes by the terms of my easement?
The language of an easement generally takes into consideration the fact that we cannot see into the future and we cannot predict what ecological and economic demands may be placed on farmland. If technologies develop that are consistent with agricultural use of the land, the landowner will not be prevented from implementing those technologies.
What about wind turbines and wind farms?
This is a tricky question and DATCP is currently in the process of determining how to treat these structures. Wind turbines that generate power for the farming operation may be considered appropriate and will most likely be allowed by the PACE program. Wind farms that generate power beyond what is required to operate the farm, however, may be handled differently. These may require DATCP approval before a landowner can construct the wind farm on property protected by a Wisconsin PACE easement. It is possible, as well, that a PACE easement may simply exclude a portion of the property from its terms, and thus not placing any land use restrictions on that portion of the land.
If I have an easement on my land, is there anything I am required to do? Do I have to make sure it is always being farmed?
Landowners with agricultural conservation easements are under no obligation to actively farm their land at all times. If a landowner cannot continue farming the land for whatever reason, the land can remain as open space without violating the easement. In addition, the landowner is generally not limited in the types of farming that can occur on the land. The landowner must, however, comply with certain state soil and water conservation practices on the land.
What’s the role of a local land trust or government in the PACE program?
Conservation easements are necessarily agreements between landowners and an easement-holding entity. The easement holder is responsible for making sure the terms of the easement are upheld: that means annual monitoring of lands protected by easements and regular communication when landowners undertake activities or building allowed by the easement. Easement holders are legally bound to uphold easements, just as landowners are. They work with landowners to resolve questions about the easement allows and restricts, and in extreme cases, defend easements in court. In Wisconsin’s PACE program, local land trusts and governments are eligible easement holders. DATCP is providing money to cover the purchase price, but will not have a direct relationship with participating landowners.