What is a Land Trust?

By: Tina Aiu

A land trust is a non-profit, 501(c)(3) organization that works to permanently conserve lands that contribute to a community’s health, well-being, and unique character.  These may include lands with water resources that ensure clean drinking water, rich working lands that have potential to bring locally-sourced food to a community, lands that ensure public access to the coastline or open spaces, historic and/or cultural sites that allow us to connect to our past, or beautiful scenic lands that enrich our emotional and mental well-being.


How do Land Trusts permanently conserve land?

Waihe‘e Refuge

Waihe‘e Refuge

As all or part of their mission, Land Trusts actively work to conserve land in a community through real estate transactions with private landowners who wish to donate all or a portion of their land for conservation.  In some cases, a Land Trust will purchase a property outright in fee simple and take on a property’s long-term stewardship for the benefit of the public.  Some examples of fee simple transactions are Hawaiian Islands Land Trust’s (HILT) Waihe‘e Coastal Dunes and Wetland Refuge and Maunawila Heiau.  Another common method Land Trusts use to permanently conserve land is through the use of a Conservation Easement. 


A Conservation Easement is a legal agreement whereby a landowner transfers a partial property interest to a conservation organization, such as a Land Trust, or government entity that permanently limits future uses on the land in order to protect the its conservation values.  The landowner continues to own the land - maintaining rights such as exclusivity and the right to sell or bequeath the land – but his/her rights to use the land are subject to the restrictions contained in the Conservation Easement.  The Land Trust holds the development rights but is prohibited from ever exercising them.  As the Conservation Easement holder, the Land Trust assumes the responsibility for monitoring the conservation values on eased land and ensuring that all future landowners uphold the easement restrictions.  Once placed on the land, a Conservation Easement “runs with the land,” meaning that it applies to all future owners.  HILT holds over 37 Conservation Easements throughout the State of Hawai‘i.  Click here to see some of the properties HILT has protected for the benefit of Hawai‘i communities.  


Why are Land Trusts good partners for landowners and developers?

Photo: Palm Forest.  Courtesy of Jeane McMahon

Unlike conservation through government regulation, such as zoning laws or state land use ordinances, placing land in conservation with a Land Trust is permanent and not subject to the political whims of a particular time.  This form of conservation appeals to landowners because it is voluntary and, most importantly, offers landowners an opportunity to leave a legacy for their community.  Check out the legacy that Pulitzer-prize winning U.S. Poet Laureate, W.S. Merwin, left for Hawai‘i by donating a Conservation Easement over his Palm Forest to HILT.  Landowners may also realize a variety of tax benefits (such as income tax benefits and estate tax benefits) for donating their land to a Land Trust. 


For developers, donating a Conservation Easement to a Land Trust can show a community that the developer is making a permanent investment in that community and can help developers build stronger relationships with local residents.  Keep in mind, however, that land subject to a Conservation Easement or transferred to a Land Trust in fee simple is still bound by local zoning and state land use laws.   


What do Land Trusts NOT do?

As a charitable organization, a Land Trust must work for the public interest.  Ultimately, the landowners HILT engages should have charitable intent in donating their land.  We do not accept Conservation Easements that serve the purpose of allowing a landowner to qualify for a government permit.  We do not accept Conservation Easements where a landowner only seeks to realize tax benefits.  We do not accept fee simple properties without raising enough funds for the long-term stewardship of the land.  In some circumstances, we will purchase a Conservation Easement or fee simple interest in land, but in these cases we cannot pay more than appraised value for the Conservation Easement or fee simple interest.