Conservation Restrictions Uncovered

Cedariver, Millis

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Get a comprehensive look at the CRs stewarded by The Trustees in Massachusetts.

Conservation Restriction Map

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CR Stewardship Specialist, Andrew Bentley, introduces us to the little-known world of Conservation Restrictions (CRs). As part of an ongoing, occasional series, Andrew and our Conservation Restriction team will take us behind the scenes of this fascinating but complex world, revealing how CRs are created, maintained, as well as speaking with property owners about the benefits of teaming up with The Trustees.

The Trustees of Reservations boasts a long and storied history, anchored in Charles Eliot's vision of inviting public use and enjoyment of natural and historic places in Massachusetts.  Our 113 properties now include landmarks from the shores of Crane BeachLong Point, and Wasque, to shady forest hikes and views at places like Peaked and Monument Mountain, to historic houses and cultural history at Naumkeag and the Old Manse. We are a leader in the land conservation movement, actively protecting threatened landscapes over the decades, to preserve forests, farmland, and historic and natural resources without which much of a community's character may be lost. Our status as the largest holder of Conservation Restrictions (CRs)  by acreage in Massachusetts is a testament to this leadership. 

In 1972, The Trustees accepted its very first perpetual conservation restriction (CR), a legal agreement between a land trust and a private landowner to permanently conserve their property, on 65 acres of land in Sherborn, fittingly next to our very first Reservation, Rocky Narrows.  Since then we have worked to protect over 390 parcels on about 21,000 acres statewide, making us the largest private holder of CRs in Massachusetts. This has been an integral, if not highly visible, method for The Trustees to protect land beyond our reservations.  After taking the CR, The Trustees DO NOT own the land, but we partner with the landowners to ensure permanent protection of the property.

Though it is not our goal to own CR properties, many great relationships with CR landowners have eventually resulted in generous donations of their land to become new reservations or pieces of reservations - for example FarandnearCedariver, and Rock House Reservation were first protected by our CRs before the landowner donated them to become reservations, while Crane Wildlife RefugeRocky NarrowsBrooks Woodland Preserve, and Menemsha Hills have all been greatly expanded by contributions of CR parcels to become part of these reservations.   

The historic Brickyard site on Martha's Vineyard, long privately owned and
subject to a 1990 CR, was recently generously donated to The Trustees
and will soon become part of Menemsha Hills reservation.

But what is a CR exactly?  And why are they important?  Why should the public care? How do The Trustees meet their stewardship responsibilities as a CR holder?

CRs, known as conservation easements (or CEs) in the other 49 states, are a legal agreement to permanently protect land, usually between a granting private landowner with a conservation organization. The landowner continues to own the land, but agrees to manage it according to certain prohibited uses and allowed activities. By law, CRs must provide public benefits. Some of these benefits may include protection of scenic views, enhancing public water supply protection, or wildlife habitat protection. CRs do not require a landowner to provide public access to their property, though a small number choose to do so in a limited capacity, perhaps by providing a trail easement to reach a Trustees reservation or other conservation land across their otherwise private land. CRs are meant to last forever, and are recorded at the county Registry of Deeds with the property's chain of title, and even when the land is sold, the future owners are bound by its terms. The importance of CRs for protecting our state's forests, farms, and threatened habitats is huge. With so many farms converted to subdivisions in recent decades, and nearly two thirds of Massachusetts forests owned by private landowners, typically in relatively small parcels compared to the land ownership pattern in western states, CRs between conservation organizations and willing forest landowners are one of the best tools to ensure that wooded and working landscapes in Massachusetts and New England remain largely intact.

The negotiation of CR terms is a balancing act – the holding conservation organization wishes to see the most beneficial conservation outcome, but the needs of the landowner to continue using the land are also vitally important. Every CR document is different as a result of balancing landowner needs with conservation needs.

Hypothetically let's imagine a family owns a 100-acre farm, one of the last traditional farms in their community, which sits on prime agricultural soils, and abuts a Trustees' reservation. The family is generously willing to place a CR on the land to ensure that their land always remains in farming, though they need to make sure that the practical aspects of farming are allowed uses in the CR. Recognizing that their teenage daughter dreams of running the farm one day, the landowners see a possibility that she may wish to have one more house built on the property. They therefore propose that the CR allow structures for agricultural uses on a designated part of the property totaling 5 acres.  Another term allows for construction of one house in the future on a 2-acre lot on the property. After negotiation, The Trustees would recognize this as a good outcome. With no CR, there is the possibility that after the current landowners' death, the remaining family members might prefer to sell the land to become dozens of two-acre house lots. Not only would that be a sad outcome for the last farm in the community, but it would mean the waste of valuable agricultural soils, and a lost opportunity to connect conservation lands. Under the CR, one future house and new agricultural buildings would be allowed, while most of the property cannot be built upon and would remain in farming and as forest forever.

CRs on farms, such as Spring Street Farm in Millis
pictured above, balance permanent land protection
with helping a successful community farm thrive.

The Trustees are responsible for stewarding all CRs that the organization holds. What do we mean when we talk about CR stewardship?  As opposed to direct stewardship and management of our reservations, CR stewardship involves partnering with the landowners to build positive relationships with them, promoting great land management practices, and meeting our legal obligation to monitor compliance with the CR terms and ensure permanent protection of the land. Our team of professionals in the CR Program must annually visit each and every property around the state to meet with the landowners, inspect the land, and complete reports documenting changes to the property. Other aspects of the job include:

  • serve as a resource to CR landowners for referrals to foresters, invasive plant management specialists, surveyors, and other land management professionals; 
  • negotiate certain activities on CR properties only allowed with permission of The Trustees; 
  • create and maintain a Baseline Documentation Report (BDR) of maps, photos, and resource documentation for each and every CR property; 
  • tracking changes in CR property ownership and working cooperatively to educate new landowners about the CR terms; 
  • working to resolve any violations of CR terms.

These are no small tasks for stewarding nearly 400 CRs, but the work balances working outdoors with office time, and presents the opportunity to work with fascinating landowner partners and their beautiful properties. There is rarely a dull moment! We hope you will stay tuned to The Trustees' social media each month for a featured story about some of these amazing CR properties and landowners from our CR Stewardship team!

Some members of the CR Program staff pose last year on a private CR
property by a sign for public access to a hiking trail.