Forum looks at debate over conservation easements | SierraSun.com

Forum looks at debate over conservation easements

David Bunker, Sierra Sun

These easements, which strip the development rights from a property owner’s land, often in return for a tax break and money, were the topic of a California Association of Business Property and Resource Owners (CABPRO) forum held in Nevada City on Saturday.

Jeff Cutler, land conservation director for the Truckee Donner Land Trust, was a panelist at the forum, along with representatives from the Nevada County Land Trust, Tahoe National Forest, California Rangeland Trust, Nevada County Planning Department and others. James Burling, an attorney for Pacific Legal Foundation, was the one staunch opponent of perpetual conservation easements.

The upside of the easements is that large blocks of land can be shielded from future subdivision and development, while farmers and ranchers continue the use of their land uninhibited by the agreement. It’s budget land conservation, since buying an easement costs roughly 40 – 80 percent of the land value, depending on the easement, and the land trust avoids the management costs associated with taking over full ownership of the land.

“Protecting ranchlands and conserving our farmlands is a key,” said Nevada County Land Trust Director Cheryl Belcher. “The ranches contain water resources that we have to take care of.”

Belcher said that conservation easements are one of the most used tools for her organization, and allows the property owners – “the best stewards of the land”- to continue managing the land.

Belcher denied that landowners are regularly forced into easements because of financial hardship. She contended that they have the best purposes in mind when making their decision.

“The motivation comes from love of the land,” she said.

The Nevada County Land Trust holds 30 conservation easements around the county.

California Rangeland Trust representative Devere Dressler said that easements on cattle ranches often provide tax breaks and money to ranchers who want to keep ranching but would otherwise be forced to sell off their land to developers. Up state Route 89 from Truckee, Sierra Valley ranchers are agreeing to easements facilitated by the Sierra Business Council and Feather River Land Trust. Sierra Business Council is using grant money to help preserve cattle ranching in Sierra Valley by offering the easements.

However, critics warn against the permanence of conservation easements, most of which exclude development of land in perpetuity. They say that making decisions today that govern land use for eternity is bad policy because we can never be informed today of what land needs will be far into the future.

“Whenever you limit your [land use] flexibility there is a cost not only to your generation, but to future generations,” said Burling.

Along with his other reservations, Burling pointed out that the easement holder legally possesses certain control over the land.

“I have seen some land trust easements that have been horror stories as far as what landowners can and cannot do,” said Burling.

Land trust practices are of increased interest in Truckee, as the Truckee Donner Land Trust is poised to receive an estimated $6 million over the next 15 years from transfer fees off of East West Partner’s Gray’s Crossing project. Transfer fees on the Old Greenwood development will generate even more revenue for the Truckee Donner Land Trust to buy open space land.

Truckee Donner Land Trust holds only one conservation easement, an agreement with the landowners of Jackass Ridge, located behind the Albertsons shopping center and running west to Coldstream Canyon. The land trust plans to continue pursuing outright purchase of land to provide recreational public access to open space.

But in neighboring counties, such as Sierra and Plumas counties, conservation easements are becoming controversial. A Plumas County supervisor has opposed the easements because they reduce tax revenue for the county.

All of the panelists at the forum agreed that landowners must be careful to make sure that the easements they sign close loopholes that would allow misuse of the land, but allow flexibility to add or repair buildings or switch agricultural uses of the land in case of economic change.

While conservation easements are becoming very popular across the country, Dressler said that they will not tie up so much land that future development is hindered.

“Not everyone is going to enter into a conservation easement. They are not for everyone,” he said. “All of the land is not going to disappear so there’s nowhere to develop.”