Clean & Green? Conservation easement? What’s the difference?

People often ask us what’s the difference between Pennsylvania’s Clean and Green Program and preserving land through a conservation easement held by the Land Conservancy.

In a nutshell, Pennsylvania’s Clean and Green program encourages rural land conservation by offering preferential tax assessment to landowners who keep their land as farmland, forest, or open space. The program discourages landowners from developing their land by requiring those leaving the program to pay up to seven years of rollback taxes plus 6% interest per year. There are other restrictions and requirements of course; you can find more details on Pennsylvania’s Clean and Green program here and here.

Enrolling your land in Pennsylvania’s Clean and Green program differs from preserving land through a conservation easement held by the Land Conservancy in a number of ways:

1. Clean and Green is reversible, whereas a conservation easement preserves land forever. Once you’ve enrolled your land in the Clean and Green program, you can opt out at any time should you choose to sell or develop your land—although you will be assessed for up to seven years of your Clean and Green tax savings, plus interest. On the other hand, the terms of a conservation easement stand in perpetuity, which means your land will remain undeveloped forever, according to your wishes, no matter who owns the property in the future.

2. Clean and Green reduces local property taxes, while a conservation easement leaves a preserved property’s local property taxes unchanged. On the other hand, a conservation easement can offer significant federal income tax advantages while keeping preserved properties on the local tax rolls. Clean and Green provides no income tax relief. It’s important to keep in mind that Clean and Green is a program designed to reduce a landowner’s local property taxes—which is great for the landowner, but which effectively reduces the amount of tax income coming into the local tax coffers. A conservation easement can provide significant, multi-year income tax advantages to the landowner while leaving the local municipality’s property tax income unchanged, since properties preserved under a conservation easement remain subject to local property taxes.

3. Conservation easements offer greater flexibility. The Clean and Green program requires that your land be actively farmed or kept in forest reserve or “agriculture reserve.” Land kept in agriculture reserve under Clean and Green must allow public access free of charge. In contrast, landowners can tailor conservation easements to reflect their specific wishes for the land’s use—you can set aside a portion of your land for a house for your children some day, for example—and public access is required only in those rare situations when our funding partner stipulates it.

Both Clean and Green and conservation easements offer benefits to landowners who choose not to develop their land. The good news is that you don’t have to choose between them—you can enroll your land in Clean and Green and preserve it permanently through a conservation easement at the same time!