Managed Retreat Toolkit


Conservation Land Trusts

Introduction to Conservation Land Trusts

Conservation land trusts (“land trusts”) are nonprofit organizations that are incorporated for the purpose of acquiring and holding land for the public benefit. Conservation land trusts often focus on preserving and restoring undeveloped lands for their natural resource values, such as protecting natural habitats and watersheds, or for preserving working lands for farming or forestry. They preserve important lands with high ecological or conservation values by acquiring land or interests in land, through conservation easements.See footnote 1  


Conservation Land Trusts in a Managed Retreat Context

Conservation land trusts can be constructive partners in helping governments facilitate retreat from vulnerable flood-prone areas and efforts to restore and maintain natural floodplains. In some areas, land trusts are already helping governments facilitate retreat by acquiring flood-prone properties, restoring natural floodplains, and creating new “receiving” developments to help families relocate to homes out of harm’s way.  

State and local governments can work with land trusts to support managed retreat efforts by:

  • Collaborating to identify priority areas for acquisition where environmentally beneficial restoration could improve habitats and preserve migration corridors for wetlands and other coastal ecosystems that are vulnerable to sea-level rise; 
  • Ensuring that land trusts are eligible to receive acquired properties from hazard mitigation buyouts; and
  • Ensuring that land trusts have the financial resources to restore and maintain properties over the long term. 


Policy Considerations for Conservation Land Trusts


  • Land trusts often need start-up support to launch and build sufficient capital to acquire properties.
  • Land trusts often have to patch together funding and financing from multiple sources to support the acquisition, restoration, and long-term management of properties
  • It is unclear whether land acquired with certain types of disaster aid can be transferred to a land trust for long-term management or whether disaster recovery funds can be used to support environmentally beneficial restoration of acquired properties.
  • Land trusts have to navigate state and federal laws to qualify for tax benefits for land held for “conservation purposes.”
  • Land trusts may need start-up legal support to draw up legal agreements, including conservation easements.


  • Land trusts can help to reduce the cost of buyouts on communities by providing for long-term maintenance of properties.
  • Land trusts can help to generate economic value by delivering recreational uses of acquired properties.
  • Land trusts benefit from state and federal tax incentives for holding land in trust for public benefit.
  • Land trusts could also help to develop “receiving communities” that can create safe, affordable housing for residents relocating away from vulnerable flood-prone areas.


  • Land trusts help to maximize the environmental benefits delivered by acquired lands because they restore and enhance natural ecosystems.


  • Land trusts are often trusted community partners because they are active in communities and steward important community assets, like recreational open space. 


Practice Tips 

When using or working with conservation land trusts in a managed retreat context, decisionmakers may consider the following practice tips to address and balance different policy tradeoffs:

  • Develop acquisition programs in ways that can leverage partnerships with land trusts while complying with different funding programs: Most acquisition and buyout programs will leverage different federal funding programs (e.g., Hazard Mitigation grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant–Disaster Recovery grant program). Both state and local governments administering disaster recovery and other funding programs must ensure that different funding sources can be leveraged to support different aspects of a project (buyout, relocation incentives, development of receiving communities, restoration of buyout sites, etc.) and that funds and the conditions of the funding sources can be passed along to land trust partners to implement different aspects of the project. For example, sites bought out with FEMA funding must be preserved in perpetuity as undeveloped open space. Land trusts acquiring properties with FEMA funding must have the capacity and financial resources to enforce deed restrictions on the acquired properties and to restore and maintain the sites as environmentally beneficial open space in perpetuity. Additionally, bonds, environmental grants, and other programs should be considered and aligned as potential sources of funding to restore and maintain bought-out sites, to maximize the environmental and flood risk reduction benefits delivered by buyout projects. Finally, state and local governments may also need to incorporate buyouts and resettlement projects into plans that govern the use of disaster aid (e.g., hazard mitigation plans) and community development (e.g., local comprehensive plans) so that these types of partnerships can be activated quickly in the aftermath of a disaster when significant federal aid becomes available to help communities recover and rebuild. 
  • Seek state legislation to enable public-private partnerships with land trusts: Many states have adopted enabling legislation to specifically authorize the formation of nonprofit land trusts and even government-led land trusts. These types of enabling statutes are useful because they clarify the structure and operation of land trusts, allow for the dedication of conservation easements to preserve land in perpetuity for natural and open space uses, and allow preferential tax assessments to encourage the conservation of open space lands. Policymakers should evaluate state laws to determine the types of roles that land trusts can play in managed retreat initiatives and the adequacy of incentives, like tax incentives, to enable land trusts to play these roles. Additionally, states should review legislation establishing various state funding programs to ensure that land trusts are eligible grant recipients under programs that could support buyouts, restoration, redevelopment, community engagement, planning, and other activities that will be required to implement comprehensive managed retreat projects. For example, in South Carolina, the state legislature is considering a bill that would create a Resilience Revolving Fund to facilitate floodplain buyouts and restoration of natural floodplains and the program specifically includes land trusts as eligible recipients of funding under this program. 
  • Provide start-up funding and technical assistance: Governments can provide funding and technical assistance to help start-up and build the capacity of land trusts to support state and local resilience efforts, including managed retreat initiatives. Most conservation land trusts were formed to conserve pristine natural landscapes and may not have the technical know-how to navigate disaster recovery programs and facilitate floodplain buyouts. To enable land trusts to play these types of roles, state and local governments can provide start-up funding and training to help land trusts develop the capacities needed to engage with disaster recovery programs, develop legal agreements needed to comply with program requirements, develop the skills and capacities to engaged disaster-affected residents, among other skills and expertise needed to support managed retreat initiatives. This type of start-up support has proven instrumental in the affordable housing context, where cities — like the City of Irvine in California — have supported the establishment of community land trusts to build and maintain permanently affordable housing.

Related Resources

Community Land = Community Resilience: How Community Land Trusts Can Support Urban Affordable Housing and Climate Initiatives

Housing insecurity and the impacts of climate change are two interrelated issues increasingly affecting cities across the United States. This report provides an overview of how community land trusts (CLTs) can present a solution to help cities mitigate both of these challenges by promoting community ownership and decisionmaking and providing permanently affordable and resilient housing. CLTs are nonprofit organizations with community-led governing structures that hold land in trust for the benefit of the community, often providing and preserving affordable housing, stewarding community amenities like parks and greenspace, and providing low-cost commercial properties that can support small businesses and economic resilience. CLTs can also play an important role in managed retreat strategies by helping to plan and design affordable “receiving” areas and helping communities at high risk of flooding to relocate together to these higher-ground areas. Building on examples from state and local policies in the U.S. and Europe, the report provides detailed policy recommendations for how local and state governments can enable the scaling up of CLT approaches and thereby promote housing affordability and resilience.

Big Sur Land Trust—Carmel River Floodplain Restoration and Environmental Enhancement Project (Carmel FREE)

The Big Sur Land Trust in partnership with the County of Monterey is leading implementation of the Carmel River Floodplain Restoration and Environmental Enhancement (Carmel FREE)  project that will restore habitat and reduce flood risks in the lower Carmel River watershed. The project will use nature-based approaches to reduce flood risks to nearby properties by restoring the natural river corridor and habitats. Old levees in need of maintenance along the River will be removed to allow restoration of the natural floodplain, which will improve water quality and habitats, and recharge groundwater. A new causeway bridge for Highway 1 will be built to restore hydrological connectivity and facilitate restoration of wetlands on the project site that are adjacent to the Carmel Lagoon. Additionally, new trails will be constructed throughout the project site to create recreational amenities for residents. These activities are anticipated to restore approximately 100 acres of wetlands and other habitats delivering environmental benefits and also enhancing flood resilience from sea-level rise and more frequent storms for businesses and residents in the Carmel Valley. This project demonstrates how public-private partnerships with land trusts can be used to facilitate land acquisitions and support ecosystem-based restoration projects.

Louisiana Land Trust Resettlement Projects

In Louisiana, a state-created land trust is supporting floodplain buyouts and helping families relocate out of vulnerable flood-prone areas. The Louisiana Land Trust (LLT) was created in 2005 to support buyouts after hurricanes Katrina and Rita. After more recent flood events, LLT expanded its role to help communities relocate to safer, higher ground areas. The land trust is helping to facilitate the resettlement of residents of the Pecan Acres subdivision in Pointe Coupee Parish and the Isle de Jean Charles community in Terrebonne Parish. The Pecan Acres subdivision is located in a lower-income neighborhood north of the City of New Roads, and has experienced repeated flooding seventeen times over the past 20 years. LLT is working to help resettle approximately 40 households within the subdivision by acquiring their flood-prone properties, and supporting a development on higher ground where they can relocate. Isle de Jean Charles is a narrow island in South Terrebonne parish and is the home of the Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha Confederation of Muskogees and United Houma Nation tribes. The island has lost 98 percent of its land mass since 1955 and many residents have left as a result of increasing flooding, where encroaching seas often flood the only roadway connecting the island to the mainland. With funding from the National , the state is working to support implementation of a tribal resettlement plan. LLT acquired the resettlement site, about 40 miles north of the island that will be redeveloped. Eligible and participating families and individuals will be offered properties on the site with a five-year forgivable mortgage. Both the Pecan Acres and Isle de Jean Charles resettlement developments will incorporate resilient and green design features (including elevation about FEMA minimum standards, LEED certified construction, green infrastructure, and community amenities like parks) and will enable the residents to relocate together, maintaining social bonds and cohesion. This example demonstrates how land trusts can support efforts to relocate whole communities and support development of sustainable and resilient receiving communities.

Annexing Higher Ground and Preparing Receiving Areas in Hamilton, Washington

In 2019, after decades of repetitive flooding, the town of Hamilton in Skagit County, Washington partnered with Forterra, a local land conservancy nonprofit, to annex a 48-acre parcel of land located outside of the town’s 100-year floodplain. Annexing this land will provide Hamilton with a higher, drier ground area where town residents could voluntarily relocate to new homes. Forterra purchased the annexed land in partnership with the town and plans to develop the land. Forterra plans to build affordable, environmentally conscious homes for Hamilton residents. Hamilton provides an example for other municipalities and local governments of the value and benefits of pursuing managed retreat strategies in partnership with a conservation land trust. In Hamilton, the conservation land trust purchased property the local government could not afford to purchase and plans to subsidize the cost of living in the new development for relocated Hamilton residents.


Building a Better Norfolk: A Zoning Ordinance of the 21st Century - Norfolk, Virginia

In Norfolk, Virginia, the city is working with the Living River Trust to support implementation of the Resilience Quotient System that was adopted in the city’s update to its zoning ordinance in 2016. The ordinance includes incentives for extinguishing development rights in a “Coastal Resilience Overlay” (CRO) district where properties are vulnerable to future sea-level rise. Points can be earned in an “Upland Resilience Overlay” (URO) by extinguishing development rights by acquiring open space conservation easements or restricting densities of development in the CRO. These points can be used by the developer to comply with the Resilience Quotient System to build higher density development in the URO, which includes upland, safer parts of the city. Norfolk is working with the Living River Trust to develop a rolling easement where property owners in the CRO can dedicate an easement that will extinguish their rights to redevelop the property after the property owner passes away or the property is destroyed. The Living River Trust will serve as an intermediary between the property owner selling the easement and the developer that will use the development rights to earn points. The land trust will hold and enforce the easement, facilitate demolition of the structure once the easement terms are triggered, and will restore and maintain the property as natural flood buffers for adjacent development. By partnering with the land trust in this way, the city can limit its role in enforcing easement terms, restoring acquired properties, and maintaining properties over the long-term.

Mainstreaming Sea Level Rise Preparedness in Local Planning and Policy on Maryland's Eastern Shore

The Eastern Shore Land Conservancy (ESLC) in Maryland has been an active partner in helping rural communities on the Eastern Shore of Maryland adapt to rising sea levels and more intense heavy rainfall events. Maryland’s Eastern Shore along the Chesapeake Bay is one of the most vulnerable regions in the country to future sea-level rise. ESLC is supporting sea-level rise adaptation through strategic land acquisitions to conserve wetlands and natural flood buffers that protect development and agriculture. Through the Delmarva Oasis project, ESLC is partnering with other conservation organizations on the Delmarva Peninsula to preserve important habitats and migration corridors to protect important biodiversity, habitats, and agriculturally productive farmlands to enhance both environmental and economic resilience as well as food security for the region. ESLC also provides important technical assistance to Eastern Shore communities through the Eastern Shore Climate Adaptation Partnership (ESCAP). Six counties and two municipalities in the region collaborate through ESCAP on efforts to prepare for rising sea-levels. ESLC facilitates the regional collaborative and has helped to bring financial and technical assistance to the region to support the development of a sea-level rise vulnerability assessment and legal and policy guidance for Eastern Shore communities.

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