The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission (the “Commission”) recently announced that it is looking for Pennsylvania landowners with stream frontages to enter into conservation easement agreements in exchange for a one-time payment. The Commission is seeking these easements in furtherance of the Voluntary Public Access-Habitat Incentive Program (the “VPA-HIP”), a competitive grant program of the U.S. Department of Agricultural Natural Resources Conservation Service designed to provide funding to state governments for the benefit of public hunting, fishing, and other wildlife-dependent recreation. Portions of Pennsylvania’s VPA-HIP allocated funds are administered by the Commission for the purpose of providing Pennsylvania’s anglers with enhanced public fishing opportunities. Qualifying landowners who enter into a VPA-HIP conservation easement with the Commission will be awarded a one-time payment in consideration for permitting members of the public to access and fish on their properties. The amount of compensation for providing these easements depends on several factors, including (i) the length of the stream frontage that is made available for public access, (ii) the location of the property, and (iii) the fishing quality of the stream.
Before entering into a conservation easement agreement, it is important for landowners to understand what exactly these agreements entail. In Pennsylvania, the Conservation and Preservation Easements Act regulates conservation easement agreements. Simply put, a conversation easement agreement is a legally binding agreement between a landowner and a land trust or government agency wherein the landowner agrees to convey certain rights over all or part of his or her land for conservation purposes. For instance, an individual may enter into a conservation easement agreement with a county or state government to limit the right to subdivide or develop their property in order to preserve trees or other natural resources on the land. Conservation easements are also an increasingly popular method for landowners to preserve and protect farmland and its agricultural, historic, or scenic value.
VPA-HIP conservation easements, like conservation easements generally, are designed to provide a public benefit. In this case, the specific intent of a VPA-HIP conservation easement facilitated by the Commission is to afford the public with additional recreational access for fishing and boating along Pennsylvania’s waterways. Accordingly, in exchange for a one-time lump sum payment by the Commission, these agreements generally require landowners to convey rights over strips of land adjacent to applicable streams or waterways for use and access by the general public. Landowners conveying these easements are often restricted or altogether prohibited from constructing buildings or structures within the defined easement area.
Today, there are more than 100,000 conservation easements covering 22 million acres across the United States. Conservation easement agreements are usually permanent, recorded documents, meaning the easement will exist in perpetuity and will not expire by its own terms. Because a conservation easement agreement may include terms that greatly restrict or prohibit development, it is important that a landowner thoroughly understands each provision and the limitations that will attach to the use and development of their property.