What is a trail easement?
A trail easement is a voluntary, legally enforceable agreement between a landowner and a trail organization or local or state agency where the landowner promises to preserve a linear corridor of land, keep it substantially free of future development, and make it available for public use. An easement may be donated or sold to a trail group, town, or public agency based on its appraised fair market value.

What issue does this tool address?
A municipality plans to implement a trail network using the Open Space Plan and Official Map tools that define open space and recreation priorities, including trails. However, the municipality may not have sufficient funds to pay the appraised market value for properties that become available for sale or properties that are subject to subdivision and land development. The municipality needs a tool that will help to stretch the open space funding budget so that as many open space and recreation goals as possible can be achieved for the investment.

What does this tool accomplish?
A trail easement costs a fraction of the purchase price for the entire parcel of land and allows public access to private lands at a reduced cost. By voluntarily donating or selling a trail easement to a nonprofit or government, a landowner may allow public use to a specified area without having to subdivide the land or lose ownership and control of the land. 

How is this tool implemented?
A trail easement program should include municipal outreach and education to provide answers to basic questions landowners typically have. If an Official Map or Trails Plan has been adopted, a municipality may require that a trail easement be provided when a subdivision or land development application involves a future trail. Trail easements can also be granted as a condition of conservation easement purchase by a municipality or can be granted separately.

The most basic scenario may be when a landowner grants a trail easement to a nonprofit organization or government to allow the nonprofit or government to construct or maintain a public trail on private property. Once a trail easement project is identified, the landowner and the municipality should negotiate a variety of matters:

  • The width of the trail and width of the easement
  • Types of facilities allowed
  • Permitted uses i.e. hiking, bicycling, horseback riding
  • Liability in case of an accident
  • Maintenance and emergency access
  • The trail easement must be surveyed, mapped and a legal description prepared.
  • An appraisal is performed by a licensed real estate appraiser.
  • A trail easement agreement is prepared ideally with the municipality or the county as the Holder or Grantee, and the landowner as the Grantor. In most cases, a municipality is the best holder of the easement since it is closest to the location and is able to regularly monitor the trail.

How can this tool be used in the BCG?
Trail easements can be utilized for any planned trail as illustrated on the Concept Map (Part 1, page 9).

Email  sfleming@brandywine.org   for assistance with any of the tools in the BCG Toolkit.