The Department of Agriculture manages Delaware’s Agricultural Lands (Aglands) Preservation Program. This program, established in 1991, allows landowners to voluntarily preserve their farms through a two-phase process. The first phase, which does not include any payment to the landowner, is known as an Agricultural Preservation District. In phase two, the landowner is paid to sell their farm’s development rights, known as an Agricultural Conservation Easement.
A Preservation District is a ten-year, voluntary agreement where landowners agree to continue to use their land for agricultural purposes only. Landowners with forested tracts are also eligible to enroll their properties as a Forestland Preservation Area through the Forestland Preservation Program (although it currently has no funding).
Prospective buyers of a property who wish to participate in the Aglands Preservation Program may enroll the property they wish to purchase in a Preservation District through a Contingent Sale Application (if the seller also agrees). The primary benefit of this application is that both buyer and seller are exempt from realty transfer tax on all unimproved land as long as the application is approved prior to settlement. If the settlement does not occur, the enrollment status becomes void.
To qualify as an Ag District, land must meet the farm income requirement for the state’s Farmland Assessment Act, satisfy a scoring system standard, and undergo a review and approval process. Most farms in the state will qualify. There is no payment to the landowner for creating the district.
In the second phase of the Aglands Preservation Program, landowners can (if they chose) permanently preserve their farmland by selling its development rights. The ten-year district agreement is then replaced by a permanent agricultural conservation easement on the land. Each year, funding permitting, the Aglands Program selects one round of farms to preserve. Landowners are eligible to submit a bid to sell their farm’s development rights the year after they enroll their farm into a District Agreement (for example if they enroll their farm into an ag district in 2018, then they are eligible to sell their farm’s development rights in 2019). Landowners bid against each other by offering a discount from the appraised development rights’ value of their property.
The sale of development rights is a three-step process:
There are several benefits to landowners in an Agricultural District or Conservation Easement. The unimproved land in the district is exempt from real estate transfer, county, and school taxes. There are significant protections against nuisance suits for land in the district. Landowners are permitted limited residential uses. Permitted agricultural uses include but are not limited to: crop production, herd animal and poultry operations, horse operations, forest production, non-commercial hunting, trapping and fishing, and agricultural eco-tourism operations, as well as farm markets and roadside stands.
Congress has enacted laws that may benefit owners of preserved farmland. An easement that is either sold at less than appraised value or donated to the Foundation may qualify the owner for a deduction for income, gift or estate tax purposes. Rules governing taxes are complex; owners should consult competent tax advisors on these matters.
Related Topics: aglands, Agricultural Conservation Easements, Agricultural Preservation Districts, Appraising Farms, Delaware aglands, Final Price for Farms, Selecting Farms, Tax Payer Benefits, The Preservation Program